Reflections on Resilience
“It’s like looking in the
The young woman who survived
the 2011 monster tornado that devoured Joplin
stared tensely at the images of Moore, Oklahoma
that filled her TV screen.
Most who saw
the twisted, mangled remains of the town were filled with shock, sadness and
horror at the devastation.
But for a
select group that grows as natural disasters increase in frequency and
severity, the overwhelming reaction is a sense of familiarity.
I know. I had the same feeling in October as Hurricane
Sandy advanced on the vulnerable East Coast.
But then, I and other Hurricane Katrina veterans for days had to witness
the immense storm’s slow approach. It
was like watching a runaway truck barreling down on an unsuspecting pedestrian.
The resulting damage in New Jersey
and New York
in places reminiscent of destruction on the Gulf Coast
But I also saw signs of hope.
American flags popped up everywhere just like
they did after Hurricane Katrina, hung or draped on whatever was left
As a student of how humans
bounce back from disaster, I consider the flags an early and positive symbol of
a community’s resilience.
after the tsunami spawned by
the 2011 earthquake decimated the country’s northeast shoreline, white flags
with the red circle symbolizing the land of the rising sun sprouted from the
Towns that recover from the worst
Mother Nature has to offer also share the traits of patience and persistence.
They accept that as anxious as residents are to clean up and rebuild, the
process won’t be quick or easy.
Steve Eddy, city manager of Moore, Oklahoma
explains it this way.
“How do you eat an
One bite at a time.”
It was the same phrase School Superintendent
Kim Stasny routinely quoted after Hurricane Katrina as she described the immense
chore of rebuilding the Bay Waveland School District
on the Mississippi
after Hurricane Katrina shredded the area’s six schools and left most of the
administration, faculty, staff and students homeless.
Wise, optimistic leadership is
essential for a community crushed beyond recognition. Experience doesn't hurt
either. "I know this is bad, but we'll manage to get through it,"
mayor Glenn Lewis just hours after the tornado touched down.
The 20-year-veteran was mayor in 1999 when
another EF5 twister smashed into the town killing 36.
Bay St. Louis
mayor Eddie Favre had seen the 1969
killer hurricane Camille devastate his Gulf Coast
town. So he had a model to follow and knew it was critical after Katrina to
keep citizens connected to the place.
“We may not have houses, but
everyone here has a home.
We may have
lost everything, but we still have each other,” Favre would assure
“And every day, as long as
it’s a little bit better today than it was yesterday, we’re on the right track.”
Bay St. Louis
recovered so well that in 2010
Coastal Living named it one of the top ten small beach towns in America
A resilient town sees loss as an
opportunity. "We have the chance with the clean slate we have to become
the community we wanted to be," explains Jane Cage, the chairman of Joplin Missouri
Citizens Advisory Recovery Team. Cage points out that very few new houses are
built there now without safe rooms. On the Gulf Coast
most new homes are higher, stronger and further from the water.
Even the most robust post-disaster
communities cannot prevent the event's unforeseen impacts on its most
vulnerable citizens - the very young and the very old.
On the Gulf Coast
, there are still young people who
become terrified when a thunderstorm blows through. Children whose families
took years before finding permanent housing are more likely to have discipline
problems, be suspended or drop of school.
Inexplicably, death rates increase
in the first year or two following a disaster among senior citizens who survive.
It happened on the Gulf Coast
after Hurricane Katrina, in Japan
after the earthquake and tsunami, in Greensburg, Kansas
after the 2007 EF5 tornado and is already occurring in some places impacted by
Few regions track the phenomenon,
so reliable statistics are hard to come by.
Mitzi Hesser, a nurse heading up Greensburg
health department, did keep count and confirms elderly death rates there went
“The elderly people…they just
couldn’t get over it,” said Hesser. She
acknowledged no one knows whether environmental factors played a role. Hesser shared her belief that the stress from
dealing with the post-tornado recovery and the resulting physiological changes
shortened the lifespan of most adults in town by five years.
“Took five years off my life. I still got hopefully a few more to go,” she
laughed. “When you’re 80 and you take five years off your life, you’re done.”
Still, an astonishing optimism pervades
resilient communities after disasters.
They see themselves as survivors instead of victims. And despite the carnage that surrounds them,
the adjective I hear most use afterwards to describe themselves it not “cursed”
Eleven people died in Greensburg
when the nearly
two-mile-wide tornado destroyed 95% of the town of 1500.
Mayor Bob Dixson and his wife emerged from
their basement afterwards to find their home gone.
A diorama of Greensburg
history in the new city
museum features a photo of a sign hanging on the ruins. “Future home of the
We are blessed.”
“It could have been hundreds,” says
Dixson as he reflects on the death toll. “So we feel blessed we were looked
after and spared.”
But just as those up and down the Gulf Coast
who used the adjective to describe themselves after the worst natural disaster
history, it’s more than a matter of survival.
The word reflects a new-found recognition of what is important - and
it’s not stuff.
“Faith, family and friends,” Dixson
maintains. “It sounds a little cliché, but that’s what it is.”