The Other Side of Disaster

Earlier this month a lot of ranchers in TX, OK and KS experienced a nightmare. Driven by winds of 50 mph and more, they lost grass, infrastructure and livestock to intense, fast-moving wild fires. I’ve heard from several Ranching For Profit Alumni whose entire ranches burned. They spent the day after these devastating fires evaluating losses, euthanizing suffering animals, and taking steps to ensure that the animals that survived were taken care of. I’m not aware of any alumni who lost their home or who were injured. It’s hard to call that “luck,” but what else can you call it when others lost their homes and even their lives?

I’ve had some experience working with ranchers after disasters. In my rookie year with UC Cooperative Extension there were severe floods in our county that drowned hundreds of animals. When the water receded, I helped ranchers collect and pile the carcasses and then burn the piles.

After Atlas, the unseasonal blizzard that killed thousands of cattle in South Dakota, several Executive Link members and I worked with the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition to help people impacted by the storm navigate a path forward. We didn’t pretend to have the answers. What we did have was a framework that helped us ask the right questions. If you ask the right question it will help people find their own answers. The framework we use can help people prepare for, manage through and recover from disaster. 

A full risk management plan is more than just a set of guidelines for recovering from a disastrous event. It also includes steps to protect yourself should the event happen again and a plan to manage operations during the event when it happens. Whether it’s a flood, a blizzard, or a fire, a disaster on a ranch is likely to impact the land (including the infrastructure), animals, money and people. The RMC risk management framework consists of identifying strategies to prepare for, manage through and recover from a disaster in each of these four areas.

Since it is always easier to solve someone else’s problem than it is our own, we organized participants in the SDGL Atlas Recovery Workshop in to Executive Link style boards. We had 25 boards meeting simultaneously. After giving a short description of their long-term goals, their current situation, and the losses they’d suffered, each participant identified two things they would do for the land, animals, money and people to recover. To make sure the most challenging issues didn’t become overwhelming, they also identified the first step that would be required to implement each action. (The bigger the financial and emotional loss, the more valuable it is to break daunting tasks into simple steps.)

It may be premature to ask folks who suffered big losses in the recent fires what they are going to do now. Were I in their shoes, I think I’d still be in shock. But at some point, they’ll be ready to rebuild. At the Atlas meeting, which was convened just over three months after the blizzard, I found that everyone had moved beyond disbelief and grieving to acceptance and were ready to rebuild. As one young rancher put it, “I don’t need sympathy. I just need to figure out what to do.”

Whether a flood, a blizzard or a fire, I think we all want to help those who suffer in the aftermath of a disaster. To help someone in need, it is probably less important to have the answers than it is to ask the right questions. The RMC framework can help you ask the right questions.

Even more important is to have a pair of empathetic ears and the gumption to roll up your sleeves (or open your wallet) and pitch in. If you’d like to pitch in to help ranchers impacted by the fire there are several organizations collecting donations, including the Kansas Livestock Association, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association or the Texas Department of Agriculture’s STAR fund. Shane Barber, an Executive Link member from South Dakota, has initiated a unique and wonderful initiative to help folks impacted by the fires. Shane started, a nonprofit organization that provides shipping containers for emergency shelters. Having suffered a fire on their ranch, Shane knows personally how useful a shipping container can be. If you would like to learn more about, or better yet, donate to, any of the relief efforts, check out the above links.

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