When Things Fall Apart

When Things Fall Apart

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Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Wildfires. This has been a season of extreme events. The media present graphic images of destruction, and heartbreaking stories of people who have lost everything. Often, we also hear stories of first responders, professionals and people-on-the-scene who act heroically to save lives and respond to suffering when things fall apart.

Then the media moves on. And the people who live in Houston, Puerto Rico, Montana, FloridaMexico City and Santa Rosa must reconstruct their lives and their communities. But how?  What can be rebuilt?  What safeguards can be put in place to prevent a repetition of these terrible losses?  And, of course, looming behind all these questions is the issue of who will bear the costs of reconstruction.

Lessons from NOAA

All of these questions require Cooperative Wisdom. Several years before we wrote the book, I had the opportunity to think deeply about these issues as part of a task force at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA recruited a team of experts from a wide variety of disciplines including law, geography, decision science, psychology, political philosophy, cultural studies, and applied ethics to consider the human dimensions of oil spills.

What the team discovered about oil spills is relevant to recent disasters. In oil spills—and in other fast-moving crisis events—the response generally has two phases. The short-term objective is to minimize harm. Experts in the spill containment network know what their jobs are, what equipment is needed, how to coordinate teams of specialists, and how to respond to environmental variations such as channeled currents and wave patterns. Input from the public is minimal because speed is essential. Everyone agrees that the immediate goal is to “stop the bleeding.”

A similar pattern emerged in recent disasters. When wind whips a forest fire in a new direction, the alarm goes out and, knowing the drill, endangered homeowners quickly vacate. Citizens with boats went out to look for fellow residents during flooding in Houston. Social media helped rescuers converge on collapsed buildings in Mexico City. Soldiers were mobilized to deliver supplies in Puerto Rico. Agencies like the Red Cross and Direct Relief stepped in swiftly to provide food, shelter and medical supplies. In this early phase, “stopping the bleeding” means preventing further harm and relieving immediate suffering.

What does Restoration Mean?

The second phase is restoration. It unfolds more gradually after the precipitous change has occurred. At first it might seem that the goal for this phase is obvious: restore the environment to what it was before the catastrophe. Yet, as the NOAA team examined cases, it became apparent that replication isn’t always feasible.

After a major catastrophe, the physical environment may be out of equilibrium for a long time. People, however, have immediate needs. They can’t go into hibernation while they wait for the environment to recover. They need to feed and care for their families. The longer a cleanup takes, the less likely it is that a community can be reassembled as it was before the disaster.

Even if you could reconcile these two timelines, serious questions require input and consent from the people directly involved. What if the quality of the community before the catastrophe wasn’t great? Does it make sense to “restore” a dilapidated community, and, if not, who pays for improvements? What if some people liked things as they were before and some didn’t? Who decides what qualifies as improvement?

Restoration must also take into account changed environments, expanded knowledge and new technologies. What if people have built in a flood plain or along a fault line? What if the structures that were lost did not conform to current standards?   What if the crisis was intensified by social structures that allowed people to build in flood plains, created widespread poverty or made it possible to amass collections of weaponry?

Questions that Need to be Answered

A mutually beneficial plan for restoration must integrate concerns that become obvious only in the wake of the crisis. Insurance companies may pay for a rebuild only if it minimizes the risk of repeated catastrophe. Government officials may decide that it’s better to underwrite relocations that match willing workers with job opportunities rather than trying to reintegrate people into a deeply damaged environment. Public agencies may insist that communities conform to new codes that will reduce the risk of future disasters as the Clinton administration did after flooding along the Mississippi in the 1990’s.

When the NOAA task force pondered these issues, it came up with a series of questions that continue to be relevant today:

  • How does any particular combination of restoration practices promote community development?
  • Do they meet standards for environmental justice and democratic decision-making?
  • What strategies support involvement from all parts of the community?
  • What kind of incentives (economic, moral, legal) will encourage responsible parties to do their part?
Making Use of the Social Virtues

Staying engaged in these conversations is difficult, but the social virtues can help us find our way. Forestry experts can practice proactive compassion, anticipating where fires may occur, how they will be affected by available fuel and weather patterns and whether people or property will be vulnerable.  People whose communities have been ravaged by hurricanes can practice deep discernment to understand how patterns of growth made them more vulnerable to flooding. Government agencies and philanthropies can practice intentional imagination in an effort to respond equitably to multiple crises in diverse environments such as the metropolis of Houston and the island of Puerto Rico. Grief counselors can practice inclusive integrity, helping people reconnect with what matters in their lives even if they have lost homes, jobs and even loved ones.  Government representatives can practice creative courage by refusing to give preferential treatment to one group of vulnerable people over another and by insisting that social structures be revised to make disasters less likely in the future.

By the time this blog appears, the media will have moved on to the story of the day. But in the shattered communities of Houston, Miami, Mexico City, Montana, Puerto Rico and Santa Rosa, the hard work is just beginning. No one from the outside can tell these communities what they must do to become whole again. What we can do is listen and share resources and support them in finding their way back to a social configuration in which fewer people are vulnerable and more people can thrive.

Donald Scherer

If you want to learn more about Cooperative Wisdom, you can order the book from CreateSpace, Amazon, Barnes and Noble or your local bookstore.

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