Cool as McCumber

With my Type-A personality and penchant for talking faster and louder than a carnival barker, I am often assumed to be an East Coast native. Actually, I spent my formative years along the Mississippi River in Illinois. When this year’s flood waters again attacked the community where I was raised, I was able to empathize with the plight of the poor souls whose homes and property are ravaged when this mighty waterway overruns her banks.

A few weeks ago, I turned on the 24-hour news station to watch video reports of the flooding coming by satellite from the Midwest. A woman was being interviewed as she stood beside her home still awash in the muddy excesses of the mighty Mississippi. The reporter asked her about her condition, and she said she was waiting on word from Washington about what to do with her home. She said FEMA was slow to get her the answers she was seeking. Behind her, people with pickups and shovels worked to check the rising waters.

Her comments sent me back to my youth along that tract of alluvial land sandwiched between the river and the bluffs about a mile away. Although my parents chose to live on the bluffs, my aunt and uncle owned a modest rancher farther north and much nearer the river. The front lawn of their half-acre lot terminated at a cement sea-wall that plunged directly into the river. The village they called home was Port Byron.

My uncle had the illustrious title of Mayor of Port Byron. To me, he was a titan of local government, and the most famous person I knew. It seemed as though everyone who drove past his house slowed down to wave and call out a greeting. Uncle Bill was also the biggest party animal in the family, and a continual source of gossip and shame for my staid, puritanical, tee-totaling parents.

Uncle Bill drank like it was his job. In fact, I assumed it really was his job. Any time after breakfast until he retired to bed, he could be found with a beer can and/or a shot glass in hand. His management of village activities took place from a barstool at any one of the three pubs that dotted the one main road that ran along the river. When he wasn’t enjoying a cold one in a dark bar, he was sitting out on a lawn chair at home with a few empties around his feet. Uncle Bill made the stoner hippies of the next generation look like rank amateurs. However, what gained my uncle his reputation and always guaranteed his re-election were his activities during the spring flood.

As the waters rose around Port Byron each spring, Uncle Bill laid aside the booze, loaded his official truck with sandbags, shovels and sand, and marshaled the town-folk to fend off the raging waters. He organized teams of volunteers and National Guardsmen and placed them at strategic locations around the area. Sandbag brigades were formed on his orders. The locks and dams along that stretch of the river all responded to his authority as he invoked resources far beyond his tiny realm to protect the lives and property of the village residents. His experiences fighting alongside my father in the Pacific Theater in World War II gave him an air of absolute authority, and he exercised it with expert skill and compassion.

Since our family homestead was rarely threatened up on the bluffs, we joined the ranks of volunteers helping those who lived nearer the river. As a child, my job was to fill and place sandbags. Many years, I would help evacuate my uncle’s basement as the waters rose up the front yard and crested the earthen embankment that surrounded the home’s foundation. Boxes of Christmas ornaments, tools and other stored items were moved upstairs ahead of the waters that would inexorably fill the basement to within inches of the main floor boards.

When this happened, they spent several days in our home on the bluffs before returning to clean out their basement after the waters receded. During those dramatic events, I never heard one complaint, nor saw anyone shake their fists at Heaven. The floods came. The floods left. It was life on the river.

I recalled those days as I watched the woman on the news beseeching Washington for guidance with the flood. What could she expect? A check? A number to call? Sympathy? Where were her nieces and nephews, or perhaps the local mayor to help?

I saw a recent study that showed most state and local security practitioners were looking to the federal government for guidance on their security programs. I believe there is much the federal government can provide in the form of threat data, best practices and most importantly, processes. However, waiting for Washington is a poor substitute for a sandbag team.

John McCumber is a security and risk professional, and is the author of “Assessing and Managing Security Risk in IT Systems: A Structured Methodology,” from Auerbach Publications. If you have a comment or question for him, please e-mail John