Shannon Hayes lives in Schoharie County, New York, which was devastated by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Irene. She sends this report on what the experience has taught her about community resilience.
Embarrassing confession: On December 31, 1999, my husband Bob and I had a spare case of toilet paper and enough baking cocoa to last us a good 2 years. We didn’t exactly buy in to the Y2K hype, but we didn’t want to be caught with our pants down, either (especially if we were running short on toilet paper). We had just recently moved to our little cabin on a dirt road high on a mountaintop, and we figured it was just good, plain common sense.
After that, a certain degree of disaster preparedness became something of a habit. Most of it was just natural—the more stocked-up we were, the fewer times we’d have to turn on our car and burn money on gas. Plus, we were already motivated to put up plenty of local produce in the peak of the season, with the goal of eating well and saving lots of money on groceries.
Over the years we grew accustomed to the ice storms and four-foot snowfalls that could leave us stranded on our mountaintop, and simply built the necessary accommodations into our lives: a composting toilet tucked into a shed, cook stoves that would work in a power outage, a little checklist for disaster preparedness taped to the fridge. When Hurricane Irene was slamming Schoharie County, aside from the fact that our house was temporarily cut off from the farm and the rest of the community, life proceeded as normal in our home—that is, until the storm let up. At that point, “normal” became a lost fantasy as we confronted the damage facing the rest of our friends and neighbors.
A week after the first storm (and a few days before the second one), a well-meaning friend who lived several hours away called to check up on us. A keen follower of all developments related to climate change and fossil fuel shortages, he extended his hearty congratulations to my family. Our disaster preparedness was a sign of our resilience. We were passing a test that was a prelude to all the future calamities to come. We were survivors.
I bit my lip until it nearly bled in my effort to keep the words “screw you” from blurting out of my mouth. I politely ended the call, then slammed the telephone receiver on the desk, twice, before returning it to its cradle. Then I put my head down on my desk and wept. We didn’t pass any tests. We were damned lucky. That’s all. And too many people and places we care about were not.
A back-up propane stove and an outhouse are not testimonials to resilience. They are merely some extra tools to draw upon if your home is blessed by a massive stroke of good fortune that leaves it standing while those around you are destroyed. No amount of toilet paper, backyard vegetable plots, or canned tomato sauce could help a household suddenly flooded with eight feet of water.
That is not to say these things aren’t extremely important. Our “toilet paper preparedness” kept us safe and comfortable so that resources could go to help those who were not. It empowered us to help folks around us. But canned produce, outhouses, and a backyard garden are merely surface-level survival tools. Surviving a true community disaster requires resilience at a far more profound depth.
And in the last six weeks, I have witnessed that resilience first-hand. Local families were given less than an hour to select which bits of their lives to save before evacuating their homes. Everyone left safely, without a single fatality. When the waters went down, victims returned to their houses, assisted by friends, family, and volunteers, and began the heinous work of cleaning up. The air was so thick with silt and fumes we could practically bite through it, yet most of us quickly doffed our facemasks, needing to see each other smile and laugh in the face of the mess more than we cared to protect our lungs. Our need and ability to connect with each other was critical to our ability to get through this.
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I watched as friends let go of all the now-ruined little personal items we collect in our homes that come to define a lifetime: a child’s drawing saved for twenty years, old love letters, favorite books, family heirlooms. Sentimental attachments had to be released; memories would have to suffice. Acquisitions and wealth flew out the window, too. Homelessness is a sudden norm, even among our most established families. Single family homes are suddenly two family dwellings; vacation properties are now occupied with full-time residents. Schoharie County has settled in for the winter in a state of unknowing. We don’t know where everybody is going to live, what infrastructure will be re-built, where to return our library books. We’ve lost homes, personal treasures, public spaces and buildings, farmland, roads.
With all of these artifacts of our lives stripped away, I see the true resilience. We have remained a community. We stay connected with each other. Check-out counters hold collection jars; local benefit dinners and concerts abound; schools send buses out of district to bring students back to their local classmates; farmers work to cover each others’ crop and product shortages; families and friends continue to help each other repair and rebuild. True resilience is not in having a fortified home that can stand in isolation with an abundance of toilet paper. True resilience is in our relationships to each other. Because wherever those relationships exist, home will rebuild itself.
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