Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Second Year Can Be Worse Than the First

It takes resilience to survive a disaster and power through to the one-year anniversary.  Millions in New York and New Jersey marked that milestone Tuesday. But disaster veterans like those in my hometown on the Mississippi Gulf Coast know that residents still struggling should brace for the second year, when the adrenaline rush is over and reality sets in.

            Eight years have passed since Hurricane Katrina shredded Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, at 10,000 a town similar in size and character to many of those destroyed on the Jersey Shore.  But it has come back strong, and some who shepherded the town through its remarkable recovery were eager to share what they have learned with Superstorm Sandy survivors. 

            Patience is the watchword from Eddie Favre, mayor for 16 years when the storm hit.  “It’s not going to happen overnight - unfortunately.  To think that it is and maybe even that to think that it should is not reasonable,” says Favre.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Reflections on Resilience

“It’s like looking in the mirror.”  The young woman who survived the 2011 monster tornado that devoured Joplin, Missouri 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 was 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 standing.  As a student of how humans bounce back from disaster, I consider the flags an early and positive symbol of a community’s resilience.

In Japan 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 rubble piles.

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 elephant?  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 Gulf Coast 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," declared Moore 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, Mississippi 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 residents.  “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's 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 Hurricane Sandy.

Few regions track the phenomenon, so reliable statistics are hard to come by.  Mitzi Hesser, a nurse heading up Greensburg’s health department, did keep count and confirms elderly death rates there went up 50%.

“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” but “blessed.”

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’s history in the new city museum features a photo of a sign hanging on the ruins. “Future home of the Dixson family.  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 in U.S. 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.”