When Emergencies Are Too Big for an SM Kit

by David J. McGraw
UI Museum of Art during Flood of
UI Museum of Art during Flood of '08 (Photo: University of Iowa)

I am both unlucky and lucky when it comes to natural disasters. I am unlucky in the frequency of show-related disasters, but lucky in that there have been no serious injuries. There was the Opening Night tornado that transformed my station wagon into a convertible. Or the Valentine’s Day when an overnight fire in the venue’s ventilation system was caught by the cleaning crew but if I never see another bottle of Febreze, it will be too soon.

Next week marks the ten-year anniversary of a river flood that caused over $240M in damage to the University of Iowa, my former employer. We were rehearsing three summer productions at the time of the flood and had a single day to relocate to a nearby high school before the arts campus was locked down. Several buildings on that arts campus took eight years to be rebuilt and the art museum has still not returned. For me, natural disasters are not a matter of “if” but “when.” So to mark this anniversary, I wanted to share a few lessons I have learned from these emergencies:

Advance Preparations

  • Create company call trees. You may have cell phone numbers for your guest artists, but what about the staff? Break the list into branches so that you can call 3-5 key staff members and they can then relay the news to their team. You may have only minutes/hours to take action and you want a clear and quick way to communicate to everyone.
  • Build a mobile command station. What are the critical pieces of information/technology that your organization needs to operate? Can they fit in the trunk of a car? 
  • Design a back-up communication system that is not hosted locally. When the flood hit, my university’s IT staff were overwhelmed. But I had luckily built a standalone website as a teaching tool, so we created a new front page and started directing both internal (staff, artists) and external (audiences) traffic to this new site. It was not pretty, but it was up-to-date.
  • Choose who will be the official voice(s) of your organization. Rumors travel faster than wildfires and when people don’t hear anything from you for several days, they fear the worst. This is not the time you want interns or guest artists running your social media. Authorize several people to serve as official spokespeople – our Executive Director was out of town and a couple senior staff had their homes/neighborhoods affected, so it was good to have a team in place.
  • Take frequent photo surveys of your space. Production Management and General Management should be cataloging equipment for insurance purchases, but if your organization has multiple locations, it may not be clear what equipment was in which space. We spend a lot of money in just a few weeks to create our shows, but how quickly do we document our purchases? Monthly? As part of your intern’s orientation, send that person on a scavenger hunt of all of the spaces with the instruction to photo-journal their exploration.
  • Research the dangers of your facilities. It is Sunday evening: do you know where your hazardous materials are? (sorry for the dated joke) I knew about our spray booth in Paints, but I did not know about the dye storage in Costumes.
  • Determine what is worth more than its replacement value. Is there history in your space that is not intrinsically valuable or perhaps is irreplaceable. We saved old playbills and photos from decades ago. One of the last things I removed during the evacuation was the portrait of the theatre’s founder. I stopped “seeing” that painting after a couple of weeks on the job, but luckily it caught my eye on my last pass. We never would have replaced that portrait.

During the Disaster

  • Safety over Art. People will take foolish risks when faced with loss. We had technicians who wanted to break into their own building to rescue a Steinway. Work as hard as you can while there is time, but when first responders say the building is unsafe, the building is unsafe. The show must not go on if it risks the safety of our people.
  • Recognize that local disasters stress all of the local response options. I just visited Houston to discuss the recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey. The Houston Opera was able to build a temporary stage to stay on schedule but struggled to find portable toilets in time for Opening. When choosing between a displaced arts org and people forced out of their homes, we all know the priority chain.
  • Send the elevators up. If you are in any risk of flooding, make sure you do not leave elevators in the basement or ground floor. One of the biggest expenses of an elevator system is the carriage, just because it is so hard to remove/install in an existing building.
  • Protect the costumes. We can order a package of electrical equipment and scene shop tools (particularly if we have insurance), but costume stock takes years to build and the replacement value does not account for the difficulty of building/acquiring stock. We actually hung our costume stock in the lighting grid. Standing under them was like looking up under a willow tree: thousands of costumes gently and silently swaying.
  • Photograph the damage. The image for this blog post tells a thousand words about the damage done to the UI Museum of Art and was strategically used for visibility and fundraising.

Immediate Aftermath

  • Ask for help from those outside the disaster area. One of the smartest things the Alley Theatre did after hurricane was to put out a call through TCG and USITT for a donation fund to assist theatre artists impacted by the flood. So many artists have worked at the Alley over the years and this was a way for folks who were too far away to help in person to still assist the recovery efforts. Artists helping artists.
  • Use the emergency to break down walls. Are there individuals or groups within your organization that have grown apart? As awful as a disaster can be, it also can unify your team. Sometimes just shared facilities are enough to start the conversations.
  • Don’t waste a good emergency. I had been trying to migrate my organization to all digital communications but there were still some hold-outs who wanted printed reports. Nothing like displacement to change the ways you operate!

Long-Term Recovery

The hardest part will be well after the waters recede or the fires are extinguished. Your first show after a disaster will run on pure adrenaline. The challenge is that second and third show. People may donate in response to the emergency, but what about the “normal” financial crises?

  • Prepare for Fatigue. After an emergency, it seems almost ludicrous to take a break, but that is exactly what you should do. Far too many leaders burn out because they try to maintain the pace they had during the emergency. Or they forego vacations because it doesn’t seem right during so much crisis, both within the organization and in the community.
  • Identify and counter Survivors Guilt. What if your organization was not badly affected by the emergency? Or simply that your home is fine while co-workers lost everything? The sense of guilt can be overwhelming. Plan for events for those who ‘have much’ to share with those who ‘have little’ but also send the message that it is important that not everything was lost. Don’t encourage the contest of measuring who suffered the most.
  • Plan for remembrances. How do you want to mark the short-term and long-term anniversaries? Take the time to revisit the event and provide long-term support for those who are still recovering.

May this post be something you never need to use. But as stage managers, well, we like to be prepared. Here are a few links to arts-based emergency preparation and recovering websites:

https://www.americansforthearts.org/disaster-preparedness

https://www.tcg.org/ResearchAndResources/DisasterManagement.aspx

https://www.artsready.org

https://cerfplus.org/get-ready/studio-protector/