Profile: Fighting the Floods
Disaster expert advises and assures communities in a crisis.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Photo Caption: Toastmaster Robert Riebe, flood area engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on duty during last summer’s record flooding in Davenport, Iowa.
In the fall of 1992, when Robert Riebe took over as the flood area engineer for a large metropolitan region in the U.S. states of Illinois and Iowa, the job was described to him as “quiet.” Just six months later, though, the Midwest experienced massive flooding that would go down in United States history as one of the most significant and damaging natural disasters to hit the country.
Riebe suddenly had to help residents and business owners manage the catastrophic situation. In addition, he had to deal with a deluge of media members who all wanted answers – now!
“They wanted to know how high [the flood] was going to get, how soon it was going to get that high, and what could be done about it,” he recalls.
This was the “quiet” job he had been told about?
As the crisis surged, reporters from local and national newspapers and TV outlets pressed more urgently for Riebe’s assessment. TV trucks lined the streets, the media trying to gather as much footage as it could. “There was plenty of water to see,” says the longtime Toastmaster, a civilian who is the flood area engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Rock Island, Illinois. Most of the national media converging on the area during the 1993 disaster, adds Riebe, were not familiar with its flooding history and issues. “The newer reporters asked ‘interesting’ questions,” he notes wryly.
In the midst of the media frenzy and the epic flooding conditions, Riebe had to maintain his cool. Communicating with composure and intelligence was a must in this trying situation. His experience as a Toastmaster was a key asset, he says – and has continued to be so in the many similar situations he’s handled since. “Thanks to my Toastmasters training, over the years I’ve been able to field difficult questions at a time when emotions and water levels are running high.”
Intense Work Weeks
During a flooding event, of which there have been many over the years, Riebe generally works 12-hour days seven days a week. He oversees a population of 350,000 to 400,000 for the Rock Island district. Along with his media duties – doing press conferences and answering inquiries about how high and quickly the water is expected to rise – Riebe updates high-ranking military personnel, city engineers, landowners and government officials on flooding conditions. He also sets up temporary levees along the Mississippi River.
The Mississippi looms large in Riebe’s life. A resident of Davenport, Iowa, he crosses the legendary river on his way to work in Illinois every day, and then travels back over it on his way home. There’s always an awareness that the Mississippi River – a place of literary lore – is capable of overflowing and inflicting flood damage. “We have a lot of respect for the river,” Riebe says. “We don’t have it tamed, but we have a little bit of a handle on what we can do about it.”
When the water rises and nerves fray, Riebe’s services are at a premium and he finds himself juggling media interviews and disseminating detailed verbal and written instructions to property owners on how to build a temporary levee to keep out rising floodwaters from the river and its tributaries. The work to construct a five- to six-foot-high sandbag levee against fierce floodwaters is tough, but the result – saving a home – is well worth it. In some areas of his territory, including the Davenport flood, in 1993, he’s seen three- to four-foot-deep water flow through the streets unabated. Without levees, Riebe notes, the water ends up pushing at people’s windowsills and door handles.
Riebe always tells people to be very cautious when they’re working around a levee, where it’s easy to slip and fall into the water. Last summer, when there was record flooding in Iowa, he went with a television crew out to Davenport: “I asked one of the Davenport city [officials] to go out on the levee with me, and he said, ‘We can’t go out there without a life jacket – and you better have one, too.’”
Along with doling out practical advice during a crisis, Riebe must remain calm and assuage people’s fears. “When flooding occurs, emotions run high,” he notes, “so it’s important to calm people down and give them good, understandable advice as to what they can do to better their situation.”
This is known as “risk communication.” And Riebe’s Toastmasters training makes him very good at it, says Sarah Jones, an emergency management specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who has seen him speak. “He presents himself as trustworthy and comes across as very knowledgeable and understanding.”
Chartering a Toastmasters Club
Riebe started with Toastmasters in 1985, when he helped charter the Esprit De Corps club in Rock Island, Illinois. Today he is the only founding member still in the club, and he is currently serving as the group’s president. Riebe, who has attained DTM status, has held every club office but secretary and has also been an area and division governor.
When he initially joined Toastmaters, Riebe wanted to improve his communication abilities because of his involvement in a Methodist church program that had some lay people filling in for ministers. However, he soon found that Toastmasters also helped him professionally.
Whenever Riebe appears in front of the camera or talks to a reporter, he imagines that he’s answering a serious Table Topic question affecting people’s lives, homes and personal property.
“It’s important to be sensitive to people’s situation, so that you don’t say something that would offend them….For instance, a levee running through a neighborhood might be the best solution for the common good, but the people in that area aren’t going to want to hear that.”
Other advice he offers about appearing in front of the media is to admit when you don’t know the answer to a question, and to always be civil, even when someone asks what might seem like a silly question.
Developing a Polished Presence
Michael R. Cummings is another colleague of Riebe’s at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – and also a fellow member of the Esprit De Corps Toastmasters. He talks about the poise that Riebe developed through his experience in Toastmasters.
“Toastmasters provided Bob with the confidence to stand in front of a camera and listen to media questions – even sensational ones – and answer them in a cool, logical manner,” he says. “He offers them just enough information, but no more than necessary. That takes a lot of discipline and finesse.”
Jones, the emergency management specialist, adds that Riebe is also very effective during briefing sessions with the flood-crisis management team – another skill she attributes to his Toastmasters training. “During flood incidents, we gather to brief the Army commander, and Bob is always one of the first people to speak up,” she notes. “He relays activity in the flood area in a comprehensive, calm, explanatory manner. He’s always concise and to the point, and he’s a great storyteller.”
Riebe also gives speeches about flooding and disaster preparedness, appearing before Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, as well as local schools and community centers. “We have a speakers bureau in our office, and since I’m a Toastmaster and don’t mind going out and talking, I do it,” he says.
Looking back, Riebe says he’s glad the “quiet” job he took in 1992 turned out to be much more active than he ever imagined.
“When a reporter sticks a microphone in your face and asks you sensitive questions about people’s well-being and safety, you may not have much time to prepare,” he says, “but it sure is exciting.”
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.