I arrived at my first ambassadorship in Nairobi, Kenya in 1996 with a leadership agenda that included inter agency teamwork and raising community morale. Like all U.S. embassies, our teams changed membership at least once a year. My last article looked at the different phases of group behavior as noted by American psychologist, Bruce Tuckman.
I experienced those stages every time we moved in the Foreign Service, as a child and adult. In good times, I was comfortable with them.
Two years after my arrival in Kenya, at 10:30 on an early August Friday morning, thousands of people in office buildings around the downtown Nairobi railroad station and the U.S. embassy heard a loud explosion. We reacted with human behavior. We went to windows to find out what was happening.
Seconds later, 1,000 pounds of TNT exploded in the confines of a small parking lot surrounded by buildings on three sides. The blast instantly incinerated commuters on a city bus stopped at the streetlight. It killed over two hundred others and wounded thousands, many from flying glass.
In the embassy building–the target of the attack–Kenyans and Americans who survived the blast crawled outside, organized themselves and re-entered the death trap as first responders.
Our medical team set up a triage unit on the sidewalk. Colleagues from other agencies dispatched supplies and medical help. U.S. Marines from our now diminished security guard detachment – one had died, another was wounded – established a perimeter and remained until help came 36 hours later.
Not one of our wounded subsequently died. Not once did we lose control of the building or people. We were heroes. Then, a new reality set in.
The Stages of Group Behavior in a Disaster
The Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DATC) at the U.S. Department of Health and Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) outlines six phases of group response to disaster.
STAGE 1: Warning
“Fear and Uncertainty”
- We communicated the vulnerabilities of our embassy building for two years.
- I was told to stop “nagging.”
- We had warnings of terrorist activities which, we were told, had been dealt with.
- The community became accustomed to radio checks and alerts.
- No one expected the attack.
STAGE 2: Impact
A range of intense emotional reactions
Instantly, 213 people died. and up to 5,000 were injured. Thirty-six Kenyans and 12 Americans died in the embassy building.
Those who made it out of the embassy regrouped to rescue those still inside.
STAGE 3: Heroic
A high level of activity with a low level of productivity
In our case, overwhelming needs produced high productivity. Teams formed across the community:
- To search for the missing
- Advise family members of their losses
- Visit the bereaved
- Complete paperwork
- Manage assistance to local hospitals,
- Feed Washington’s insatiable appetite for information
- Tend to the media, and
- Deal with whatever other crises emerged.
We were resolute, overwhelmed and soon exhausted
STAGE 4: Honeymoon
Disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly.
Again, the Nairobi experience was different.
- Our rescuers finally arrived after significant delays. When they did, we found them unprepared for our reality and for a brief time they were part of the problem, not the solution.
- Things got better with clear roles and responsibilities, but nevertheless, it was a wounded community that was now hosting hundreds of new people unfamiliar with the landscape.
- Overcoming the gap between we-who-had-endured-the-unthinkable and they-who-had-not was a challenge. As helpers came in and out, we became better at bridging the experience.
STAGE 5: Disillusionment
Discouragement,” “feelings of abandonment,” “stress,” and “exhaustion.”
Disparities in the treatment of American and Kenyan employees became evident. Americans got paid leave for “rest and recuperation,” Kenyans did not. When we took refuge in the Agency for International Development building, areas previously available to Kenyan became off limits because of classified documents.
“Ambassador, you have a problem.”
The exact same words came from two groups. Each claimed the other was causing a problem. Both expected me to fix it.
Within six weeks of the bombing, our colleagues in Washington had returned to normal and asked us why we had not yet achieved closure or submitted this or that report on time.
A congressionally mandated Accountability Review Board arrived to hold us to account, adding to the stress some were confronting through the RAD method: Repression, Alcohol and Denial. The adrenalin had worn off, the workload and exhaustion had not.
This is what helped.
- We returned to community traditions
- Milestones got special attention
- We accomplished goals
- Newcomers and outside helpers brought energy
- We talked endlessly about what each of us experienced when the bomb went off
- We never stopped listening to one another
- A Remembrance and Recognition ceremony early in the new year brought bereaved families together, including those now in the U.S. For a poignant moment we were a whole community again.
- We invited mental health experts, disaster counselors, social workers and training professionals to work with anyone who wanted help.
- None of us ever stopped caring about each other.
A credible terrorist threat closed down the embassy during the winter holidays and I wondered if we were up to the challenge. We were. Team problem-solving enabled us to deliver Holiday packages and hold celebrations.
On December 31, 1998, we upheld a community tradition of a sun-downer at the nearby Nairobi Game Park. Someone played Auld Lang Syne on her car cassette player. We hugged. Some of us wept quietly.
Lee Ann Ross, our Deputy Director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, took a photo.
STAGE 6: The Reconstruction Phase
A “feeling of recovery;” “new normal,” a sense of responsibility for “rebuilding”
When I left in May, 1999, reconstruction was a work in progress. We planned for my departure by:
- Meeting employees in small groups to give as much information as possible
- Listening and providing what they needed to work comfortably in a new building to which they would soon be moving
- Helping to set up orientation sessions for Americans coming to post
- Keeping my successor in the loop
- Leaning on the skills of key managers, starting with the Deputy Chief of Mission who would take charge until my successor arrived.
- Celebrating our health as a community with my surprise going away party.
SAMSHA’s DTAC helps states, U.S. territories, tribes, and local providers plan for and respond to behavioral health needs after a disaster. For more information and technical assistance, go to https://www.samhsa.gov/dtac
- How have you seen the 6 stages of group behavior after disaster play out in your family or community? Which stage are you witnessing now?
- What has helped – now or in the past – to mitigate feelings of discouragement and stress?
- What are you doing to take care of yourself and others? What is working? What needs changing?