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Manager realized she could lead after derecho hit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Kanawha County Manager Jennifer Sayre said she worked her way up in county government over a 12-year period but didn't realize she could lead the organization until right after the June 29 derecho hit.

Sayre was among the women who spoke on Monday at a panel discussion titled, "Success by Chance: Leadership in the Eye of the Storm."

The derecho left parts of Kanawha County without electricity for as long as a week. The Emergency Alert System, designed to notify residents of severe weather and chemical plant dangers, was knocked out and most businesses closed. The windstorm resulted in temporary shortages of gasoline and ice.

Sayre recalled that she and her husband were shopping at The Home Depot on June 29 when she learned that people attending Riverfest at St. Albans were being asked to take shelter.

"This seemed to be worse than normal," she said.

Then the derecho hit Southridge and "I thought the roof was going to come off The Home Depot," she said. Soon after, Sayre learned that a majority of the people who would normally staff the county's Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, were trapped in their homes by downed trees and power lines.

Sayre said she was just minutes from the center so she decided to go there.

"It was the first time I would lead the team," she said. "I was alone in that room for about 45 minutes" before others came.

As the hours ticked by, Sayre helped Metro 911 operators answer calls, decided what resources were needed to respond to the storm, and decided where those resources should be deployed. "I had to take a leadership role which, in the past, is a role that had been taken by men.

Sayre said she is one of the youngest managers the county has had and, "I was one of the only women in the EOC.

"In order to earn the respect of those under me, I had to work as hard as they did, put the same hours in. I wouldn't ask my employees to do anything I wouldn't do.

"I've learned you have to step back and learn from others every day," she said. "This included taking orders from others. I had to let them lead me so we could get the job done. We had to stand together, no matter what.

"We kept the EOC activated for 12 days," she said. That's probably a record length of time.

Also participating in the panel discussion were:

* Betty Ireland, former West Virginia Secretary of State;

* Susan Lavenski, a partner in the advertising and marketing firm Charles Ryan Associates;

* Anne Montague, founder of the West Virginia Rosie the Riveter Project;

* State Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha; and

* Buddie Curnutte, a West Virginia "Rosie" and a World War II veteran.

The panel discussion was part of the third annual Elevations Academy, a professional women's network sponsored by The Dow Chemical Co. and hosted by the Charleston Area Alliance. Several hundred women attended the academy, which was at the Embassy Suites.

Contact writer George Hohmann at or 304-348-4836.


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