Life lessons in a crisis!

What do we learn about ourselves when facing a crisis?

Only when facing challenges, do we ever really know our own limits and capabilities

We were invited to the Residence of the British Consulate in Barbados to discuss the weather over afternoon tea and cucumber sandwiches!

Well, more specifically, the oncoming Hurricane season in the Caribbean! Experts were predicting a change in atmospheric conditions, which could mean that future hurricanes would be stronger and potentially more devastating to the islands . I was Area Manager of the Caribbean for a Travel Company, based in Barbados and the consulate had invited those involved in tourism on the island to discuss the Hurricane Preparedness of Hotels and Tour Operators following the meeting, I contacted all our hoteliers in the Caribbean to understand their Hurricane Action Plans in the event of an oncoming hurricane. The response was interesting, varying from those who had strong and well-thought-through management plans to those who had none! One hotelier told me in a wonderful Bajan accent:

Pamela, don’t you go worrying your head about that! Hurricanes never hit Barbados Man; we are invincible

A couple of months passed, and I had filed all my information away in my “Hurricane – never gonna happen” file!

I was wrong! One lovely Caribbean evening while I was making my dinner, looking forward to a quiet night in, the local TV news started to report about a Hurricane forecast to hit the Caribbean Islands within a couple of days. Hurricanes affecting the Caribbean travel from east to west across the Atlantic. They start off life as a Tropical disturbance, then a Tropical depression, then a Tropical storm, then hurricane watch, and then a full-blown hurricane from stages 1-5.

This hurricane was predicted to be a stage 5 hurricane, with sustained winds forecast to be over 150 mph.

We had 2 Boeing 767 planes full of tourists due to fly into Antigua on the day the hurricane was due to hit!

I immediately contacted my company in the UK to update them and discuss what we should do with the planes due to fly the next day. It was the middle of the night in the UK, so I was in touch with the Duty Officer. The Duty Officer contacted the emergency on-call director. The response back was that the airline did not have any such news and that the planes would take off as scheduled! I strongly challenged the decision as the Caribbean islands were all in Hurricane preparedness mode and were taking the threat seriously and I suggested we delayed the flights until we have more news. The decision was to go ahead as scheduled!

We waited and watched as the hurricane progressed across the Atlantic. It is true that hurricanes can be unpredictable. They often seem like they are heading towards a certain area and then as the wind changes it can change course and move in a completely different direction. So, fingers crossed, it would just veer off somewhere else or reduce in speed as it came closer! Sadly, however, that was not the case, this hurricane was on a direct path towards Antigua where our two planes were also headed!

Eventually, the airline started to get the message! One plane was diverted to the Dominican Republic and the other landed in Antigua, the captain quickly realized the seriousness of the situation and took off as quickly as it landed.

We were left with 100+ tourists still resident in Antigua, preparing for the potential devastating arrival of a stage 5 hurricane

Hoteliers prepared to bunker down in all the islands, but particularly in Antigua. Tourists were being moved into any underground conference rooms they had. Sunbeds were sunk into the pools, windows were boarded up, food and water stocks were secured, and everyone just hoped for the best!

I had a team of staff in Antigua and was in constant contact with them to follow the progress on the island.

As time passed it became clear Antigua was going to get the full impact of the hurricane and as the Bajan hotelier had advised me, it would completely miss Barbados!

My last call with my manager in Antigua was cut short when she advised me, that she had to go as the roof was blowing off her house!

I let her go and hoped all my staff and customers would be safe as the storm hit! The storm took a few hours to move through the island and I was very happy to hear back from my manager to say she was safe, and all her team and customers were fine, but a couple of her team’s homes had sadly, been devastated by the storm.

Luckily there was no loss of life reported, however, the main challenges after a hurricane are the loss of infrastructure, damaged property, and homes, electricity cuts, interrupted water supply, ruined food stocks, communication lines down, and roads blocked by fallen trees, making moving around the island impossible until the trees are cleared

My focus now was on how to get our Boeing 767, which was on standby in the Dominican Republic into Antigua to rescue our tourists and get them safely back to the UK.

The airport in Antigua was now closed and under military control. I called everyone I knew who was contactable, to try to find a solution. Luckily, a few hours after the hurricane had passed a hotelier called me and advised me that the road from the hotel to the airport was passable. I spoke to the owner of Sandals hotels, who had permission to fly into Antigua on his private jet and I told him we had a plane on standby and needed the authorities to allow us to land it as soon as possible.

I spoke to the British Consulate and my contacts at the airport explaining that if the plane could land then we could get the tourists off the island and the government could concentrate on supporting the local people of Antigua. Within a few hours, I had a three-way call with someone in Miami, someone in London, and someone in Antigua discussing the possibility of landing the aircraft in Antigua. They advised that we had permission to land the airplane, however that there was no power at the airport and no airport staff, so my team would need to do the check-in and the customers would need to carry their cases to the aircraft, where the army would load them into the hold. This operation, however, could only happen during daylight hours, so if the plane was not loaded and ready to leave by 17.00 local time, then the flight could not take off.

News of the first rescue flight, post-hurricane into Antigua soon spread around the island, and every hotelier with British tourists was sending them to the airport to try to get on our flight. More tourists than we had seats available! I had three calls from the airport authority chasing me about the arrival of the flight as there was a delay taking off from the Dominican Republic, for reasons I won’t go into! I kept reassuring my airport contacts that it was on the way and that we would be able to check-in, board, and load the aircraft before the non-negotiable deadline! There was chaos at the airport, as everyone wanted to get on the flight! My team was there to help, even those who had almost lost their homes! They were amazing! Finally, to cut a very long story short, the flight was ready to take off just 15 minutes before the deadline!

We all breathed a massive sigh of relief

As I am older and wiser, I look back on many of my life experiences, and now, as a Leadership coach, try to learn from them and pass on any knowledge which may help others

I think we learn most about ourselves when we face challenging situations. A few points I’d like to share, which I learned from this experience in handling a crisis were:

  • The power of Connections and relationships

Build relationships and connections in any role, as you never know when you will need to call on them!

  • Managing your own stress

This I should have managed better, as I was receiving calls through the night, little sleep and a lot of stress is not a good mixture when needing to make important decisions, so be aware of your own stress levels and ask for support if necessary

  • Managing the stress of your team

Be aware of the stress levels within your team, some people can manage more than others and you need to be able to know who can handle a stressful situation and who not

  • Defining roles in a crisis

Roles should be defined early in a crisis. I could have done this better. I took on too much responsibility and so did my manager in Antigua. Use your full team so that everyone knows their own responsibility, and everyone can contribute to even out the workload

  • Communication

Critical to keep everyone informed, which is challenging when all your effort is on fixing the immediate problem. It helps to have defined a key communicator when defining roles, which does not have to be you

  • Relief Teams and asking for support

We can often take on too much when we are in a management position and this may work in normal operations, but not in an ongoing stressful situation. Companies should have backup relief teams when possible

  • Post Crisis

A crisis is often followed by a continued challenging situation post-crisis. Do not underestimate how this impacts you and your team, who are potentially exhausted. In this situation, I had to fly into Antigua post-hurricane and assess the damage in terms of future tourism possibilities and meet my team to understand their welfare needs. There was also a shortage of bed stock challenge in the Caribbean as we needed to find replacement hotel beds around the other islands. The work pressure often continues post-crisis! We need to plan for this!

  • Recognition

All my team gave above and beyond the call of duty, particularly my team in Antigua. It is essential that you and the business recognize and reward these dedicated teams and ensure they know that their efforts are fully appreciated

We will face challenges and the occasional crisis in life and work! It helps us evolve as humans when we learn from them.

And finally, as the saying goes,

Whatever does not break us, usually makes us stronger

Pamela O'Donnell
Professional Certified Leadership and Wellbeing Coach
Pamela is English, however she has been extremely fortunate to have lived and worked around the globe during her career in the Travel Industry. This included working and living in Italy, France, Switzerland, Greece, Russia, North Africa, the Far East, North America, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean. Her wide travel experience has allowed her to develop a global awareness of different cultures and perspectives. She can speak Italian, French and German to various levels and is learning Spanish! She spends her time living both in the UK and on the beautiful Island of Menorca in Spain.

Pamela has worked as a Global Leader, with 30+ years’ experience of managing teams around the world. Her last position was as Director, Global Customer Resolution, leading a large team, based in 15 countries in North America, Europe, and Asia.

She decided to step out of Leadership and into Professional Leadership and Wellbeing Coaching after being made redundant, and as Covid-19 hit the world devastating the Travel Industry.

It was time to share her knowledge and experience by helping others to develop. She is interested in using her extensive leadership experience and combine it with her passion for Wellbeing to help others to maximize their potential.

Pamela is also a Yoga teacher, is passionate about learning and development, and has a particularly keen interest in Human Behavioural Psychology. This led her to study Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Psychology, which helps in her coaching practice.

She loves to swim most days even in the winter, enjoying the wonderful health benefits this brings to the mind and the body. She enjoys walking in nature, cycles, and teaches and practices yoga by the sea when she can. She is passionate about the positive effects movement and nature has on mental wellbeing.

Pamela does, however, admit to having a weakness for red wine and chocolate!
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