Why COMMUNITY matters most in COMMUNITY RECOVERY to disaster

Steph Roy McCallum
Sep 15, 2017 · 6 min read
Picture credit: The Daily Mail

I’ve been riveted by coverage of the total devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma. I’m speechless, my throat tight with tears for the heartache and suffering being experienced by those who are impacted. I’m motivated to action and to be of service and struggling with doing more than giving money.

This is a call to action I can’t ignore. My life’s work is in brave, honest conversations. I have extensive experience in working with communities post disaster to figure out what to rebuild, where to rebuild, how to support each other and get support for the cycles of challenge, emotion and trauma that comes post disaster. This is what I know, what I do best, how I make a difference in the world.

I’ve worked on community recovery from wild fires in northern Alberta. I’ve worked on community recovery to Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey. I’ve worked extensively across Australia over many years to build capacity, skill and knowledge for community led recovery to natural disaster with the Australian Emergency Management Institute. And I know help is needed now, before recovery starts to happen form Hurricane Irma.

Right now, communities are in a phase of RESPONSE. Making sure people have temporary shelter, have food and water, taking care of those needing medical and emergency assistance. It’s a time of taking stock of the damage to infrastructure and assessing risks. This is what the military, Red Cross and other agencies do best — come in fast and assess the situation, deal with emergencies and deliver immediate aid.

National Disaster Recovery Framework

In many situations in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, like in the case of the British and US Virgin Islands, this is what survivors themselves are pulling together to do. But it isn’t sustainable for the long run for survivors to do this. Community recovery is a long, slow, painful crawl. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And people will tire, burnout, and start to experience psycho-social impacts of the disaster themselves, leaving them less able to help others as time goes on.

RECOVERY starts very soon after the dust starts to settle and recovery takes months and years. In the case of Hurricane Irma, definitely years. After the dust settles and the debris gets cleared, everyone has temporary shelter and food and water comes the hardest part. The really hard work of building lives, connections and community with people who are disconnected, scattered and traumatized.

I know from experience that successful recovery comes from the vision, dreams, hopes and challenges of community themselves. It is about so much more than the buildings, roads and infrastructure. It is about community choosing what their future looks like, and then acting on it with the support of agencies and groups. Not the other way around, which happens so often where agencies act, and community follows. It is about community recovery and it is more than that — it is COMMUNITY LED RECOVERY where lives, connection, social capital and vibrancy of place are built again.

You can build back buildings but can you build back connection, social capital and community values? That is what matters most, and in our rush to take stock and take action we sometimes forget that disaster is about people. And how we care for them and support them, and hear what they want and need. And how we engage them in re-designing their lives.

It is about the WHOLE community creating that vision and developing a long-term plan for recovery that is inclusive and grounded in community values. That is hard when people are scattered and moved from their original connections and place. It’s hard too when just a few survivors are there to take action, supporting the rest.

Picture source: CNBC. Richard Branson on Necker Island, post Hurricane Irma. Media coverage reports that Branson and his team have been personally providing enormous aid and relief services throughout the Virgin Islands, post disaster.

In the beginning communities pull together and are often overwhelmed by the heartfelt outpouring and intense bonding that comes from the gratitude for being alive, and the adrenaline of the experience. The short term aftermath of a disaster celebrates heroic efforts and contributions, and a community pulls together.

Eventually, cleavages start to show. People get tired. Not everyone is strong all the time, every day. People are grieving, hurt, fearful and scared, and they may start to feel the stress, overwhelmed and need support.

Fort McMurray billboard, months after the wildfires, as evacuated people start to return to the community

Those who have been evacuated or left the community feel further disconnected and disenfranchised, and are often isolated from social connections and support.

You’ve got to have a place and a space for everyone, wherever they are emotionally in order to start planning for recovery.

The goal is not to re-build or build back better (as so often is said) but instead to BUILD COMMUNITY, in all the senses of that word. Not just the physical structures, spaces and infrastructure but also the social connections, the vibrancy of place, to create a physical essence of the hopes, dreams and values of a people in a location.

And this takes the community to lead. It takes a plan and a process. It takes an assessment of community resiliency at the outset, to identify vulnerabilities and risks.

National Principles for Disaster Recovery, Australia. I was lucky enough to be part of facilitating workshops and sharing best practices that led to the Australian framework for these principles, grounded in approaches led by community.

Long-term recovery takes a community led process that is grounded in:

  • Approaches led by community. Where community comes together to talk together about what comes next, what worked before, and what they want to recreate, and what didn’t work and what they want instead. It takes someone to hold space for those brave, honest conversations and to support people to really dig into their needs and where to from here.
  • It takes a connection between community conversations and the actions that are taken by agencies so that what happens reflect the community’s wishes.
  • It takes open and transparent flow of information and free flowing, responsive communication.
  • It takes a recognition of complexity. There are power dynamics, conflicts and diverging views in communities everywhere, all the time. Post disaster these can be heightened and then layered with the trauma, disorientation, loss, anxiety and anger that can be generated by the event.
  • Recovery planning and conversations need be timely, fair, equitable and inclusive. It takes everyone’s views and perspectives on the table, hashing out what happens long-term, who benefits and when and what is needed in a place of diverse needs and perspectives.
  • Recovery means building community with an eye to long-term resilience. Resilience needs to be seen as geographic, structural and also emotional, psychological and social.
  • Recovery takes compassion, courage and consistently held space for tough conversations, all the time so people feel held, supported and accepted right where they are. It also means supporting those who are vulnerable or marginalized and ensuring their voice is heard is crucial.
  • Recovery takes flexibility as needs change over time, and adjusting the plan through conversation, dialogue and community input.

The best community led recovery starts with people at the centre. It starts with a recovery process that focuses first and throughout the long marathon of building community based on community voice, view and needs.

Community led recovery takes a process laid out that says “we are in this together, and together we will choose what comes next.”

And so I’m called to action. To offer my services to support this work. To help build a process for long-term recovery that holds space for brave, honest conversations at its centre, and that allows the long journey of community led recovery and community building to begin.

Steph Roy McCallum

Written by

Leadership coach I Trainer I Master Facilitator. Brave honest conversations solve the problems in our world. Courageous Leadership Project at bravelylead.com

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