Deja Vu Rears Its Ugly Head (Again)

It’s been ten years since I was confronted with the largest physical challenge of my management career: the rebuild of an operating railroad museum after a devastating flood. The year was 2008. The nation’s economy was in an extremely steep decline. And the Midwest was caught in a deluge only Noah could deprecate. The extent of the flooding was so extensive that it damaged most of our museum’s rolling stock (its locomotives, engines, coaches and freight cars) and all but one of its buildings. The rebuild took more than a year, but the sequencing of the work allowed us to complete the necessities for being back in service nine months later for the start of the 2009 season.

Judging from the images being posted on Facebook by some of the museum’s current members, the rains this year have managed to accomplish a similar feat. The high water mark at present is only slightly lower than that of  2008, but my guess is that the lessons learned during our first encounter with liquid disaster have minimized the damage done by this year’s storms – the key lesson being “Yes, this can happen to you.”

The comment we heard most often from the people who had lived all their lives in the community adjacent to the museum was that a flood of this magnitude had never happened before. Even those of us who stood there watching the waters slowly inch higher and higher were incredulous to the point of literally being mesmerized by the slow destructive creep of impending doom. Very little was done to protect our most precious assets, the rolling stock. Consequently our operating season drowned beneath our own ineptitude as much as it did the massive amount of water overflowing the banks of the Baraboo River.

One extremely significant policy came into being post flood. Formal guidelines were adopted about what to do in case of another such disaster, which primarily concerned moving the rolling stock to higher ground if the river ever threatened to hose the museum grounds once again. Looking at a video shot a few days ago from a drone flying over the property, it is apparent that the guidelines were followed for the current flood. This means that once the flood waters recede and the “mopping up” operations are complete, the trains can run again and minimize the loss of ticket and gift shop revenue.

Experience, some say, is the best teacher, but some experiences would be gladly avoided if possible. In my humble opinion the best managers do their best to shield their organizations from the dire consequences imposed by the brutality of floods, economic downturns, lawsuits, bad press and any number of catastrophes to which every entity is vulnerable. There is no end to trouble.

It is easy to write about this from a retiree’s vantage point. My home is high and dry. My night’s sleep remains untroubled by worry, indecision, or postpartum depression. But I would still counsel anyone attending to the storylines emanating from all the epicenters of the nation’s woes – Yes, it can happen to you.

The best antidote for any convulsion is to be proactive and prepare for the worst. A few simple guidelines learned from another’s travails will increase the likelihood that you can move your own rolling stock to higher ground when needed. Protect yourself and your organization by using a little foresight and by making time to do what seems to be unnecessary at the present moment. The moment is guaranteed to change one drop of rain at a time.

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