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Red Bird and Red Wagons

If you live anywhere in the Midwest, you are aware that the New Madrid fault lies just beneath the surface of your earth as if it was an evil spirit lurking in the darkness waiting for the right moment to disrupt life in over a dozen states.

If you watched the 2017 hurricane season and never tied its lessons to your own predicament, you will, and I guarantee it… you will repeat the mistakes of those in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands because the New Madrid will turn your world into an island.


I’m not going to speak any differently than I always have, so here is the un-coated truth: these hurricanes were a lesson for each and every one of us. You are going to find as you read everything I write that I am in love with definitions.

To begin this education I want to start with the definition of the word “island”. You might find it interesting that when I opened the dictionary, what jumped out at me was the fact that the word “island” can be a verb!


You better think that one through if you are employed as an emergency manager, involved in disaster response, or work in homeland security. Hell, you better think that one through if you just live in your mom’s basement and are an out-of-work gamer! Something can ISLAND you! A mistake can ISLAND you! A lack of planning can ISLAND you!


“To make into or like an island to place or enclose on or as on an island; to isolate.”

Dr. Heim, his wife Golda and baby Betty Jean

The question we must ask ourselves is “Can we island ourselves?”


Could your hospital island itself? Your school? Your church? Your agency? Your community? Could it be that this definition has you rethinking your position and influence?

How do we island ourselves? Can we really do that?


You can bet the backside of your uniform pants you can. I witnessed us do it in 2017.


Over decades we have become experts at islanding.


Over the next few months, I will be working on completing my new book “From Red Bird to Red Wagons” which will be my second book on Emergency Management philosophy. The thought of completing this book is exciting to me as I laid down my last book as it was completed without ever seeing a page printed.


I had worked for over a year to complete my book on the pandemic and made a difficult decision as it was completed that the pandemic had become water under the bridge and that the book would never leave my computer. It may be a project that I pick up in years to come and edit as a “lessons learned” case study book, but for now, my new endeavor looks into the future of emergency management, homeland security, and beyond calling for new the protocols, attitudes and partnerships that will be needed over the next decade.

The book takes us to Red Bird Mountain. The Red Bird area of Kentucky is deep in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. While the immense countryside and rugged mountain ranges are a sight to behold, within this area of the country there is also extreme poverty and high unemployment rates. The lack of jobs, inadequate housing, and isolation of this rural region has resulted in the Red Bird area, and the counties of Bell, Clay, and Leslie being included in the top twenty poorest counties in the U.S.


An excerpt from the new book:


The winding road is barely wide enough for two vehicles. I remember wincing as I took the turns, praying that I would not scrape my truck on the jagged rock wall or careen out of control only to end up falling off the other side to my death hundreds of feet below. I remember describing the drive to friends as a high-speed version of the same road in the RoadRunner cartoons. The tree canopy was beautiful but it was difficult to enjoy as I “white-knuckled” my way up the mountain.


Without much warning, my destination suddenly appeared nestled amongst trees on what appeared to be a small side road. The building was huge and looked not only out-of-place amongst the thick over-growth of trees and tangled vines of the Kudzu. There was no way to describe the building but to say it looked haunted.

Standing just over two stories, the main entrance was rather small compared to the enormous building and the dark windows that lined both stories of the front looked out over the road with a kind of sadness as if the building was alive and in great pain.

Dr. Harlan S. Heim

As I entered the lobby/waiting area of the old abandoned hospital I had an eerie feeling that I was no longer alone. In my mind I could hear the sound of a nurse’s dress as she bustled down the hallway of the 16-bed hospital and imagined I could detect the sound of creaking wheelchairs above me in the open-air screened-in Tuberculosis ward. I half expected Dr. Harlan S. Heim himself to step out of the exam room to my right drying his hands on a towel.


Nothing had been moved or changed. The waiting room was far from welcoming and contained the same chairs that I imagine were original in 1928. The air was musty and the dust danced in the air as the sunlight sifted through the openings in the old curtains.


i did not know it yet, but it was here that I would be healed. It was here that I would find my purpose. This was the place that would change my life and become the star that my career would navigate by…


Just like Dr. Heim had left his home in Nebraska to serve the Appalachian people in this hospital, I had left my Nebraska home to follow him over 85 years later.

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