The Hidden Damage of Natural Disasters

In the immediate aftermath of disasters, Emergency Management is not designed to heal the deepest wounds. But it could be.

For weeks after the landslide, rescue workers were still plumbing the earth for bodies in Montecito. Residents were climbing over boulders to reach the battered roofs of their houses and extracting the muddied vestiges of their lives — framed photos and bits of dishes — from tree limbs.

An aerial view of homes in Montecito taken during a California Air National Guard search and rescue mission on Jan. 10, 2018. (Image by Staff Sgt. Cristian Meyers, Creative Commons)

The images of devastation in a community buried under a landslide horrify us, and rightly so. We wonder at how much it will take, in money, time, and perseverance, for Montecito to rebuild. But the truth is that the harder recovery facing Montecito (and Napa, Sonoma, Puerto Rico, Houston, and other communities recently ravaged by disaster) is from a different kind of destruction.

There is a deeper damage that follows disasters. We cannot see this damage in pictures, but it is where Montecito’s survivors will need our greatest support.

There is a deeper damage that follows disasters. We cannot see this damage in pictures, but it is where Montecito’s survivors will need our greatest support. One long-forgotten catastrophe, in a tiny community across the continent nearly half a century ago, taught us that.

Deep in a February night in 1972, a heavy rainstorm caused a makeshift dam on Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, to fail. A torrent of acrid black mud and debris cascaded through the narrow Appalachian hollow below — home to the majority of the Pittston Coal Company’s mine workers and their families. The deadly current rocketed downstream into a second and then a third coal slurry dam, amplifying the devastation, and surged through 15 villages along the creek. Survivors scurried up densely vegetated slopes in their nightclothes. They clung to cars and overhanging tree limbs as the bank rushed past them in the dark water and night. More than 120 people died.

In the days that followed, a growing relief effort brought the things we still bring to survivors of disaster: temporary housing, donated clothing and other basic necessities. But the torrent had ripped a deeper hole in the community that physical aid could not fill.

Survivors, previously steeped in fierce independence and hard-earned mutual trust, now shuffled grimly into cramped trailers. Their PTSD went undiagnosed. Otherwise perfect strangers overheard domestic disputes through the thin walls of neighboring trailers, some no more than two feet apart. As their social fabric unraveled, the survivors suffered divorces, social isolation, and in some cases suicide. Sociologist Kai T. Erikson documented this invisible impact in a first-of-its-kind study entitled, “Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood.”

An aerial view of a Santa Rosa neighborhood on October 14, 2017, following widespread fires in the area. (Image by Capt. Will Martin, California Army National Guard, Creative Commons)

We are now seeing the Buffalo Creek experience repeat, again and again. Much of the United States is enduring an ever-intensifying climate trauma. Ongoing droughts parch the land to tinderbox conditions, and encroaching seas bury once-thriving Gulf fishing villages in less than a lifetime. But the dramatic physical evidence of the record-setting Thomas Fire and its subsequent landslide is now blazed into the foreground of our collective mind’s eye, and so it’s there that we must most urgently learn Buffalo Creek’s lesson.

The environmental and economic impacts are self-evident, but hidden beneath the surface is the human impact — the undercurrent of emotional, psychological, and communal defeat.

The environmental and economic impacts are self-evident, but hidden beneath the surface is the human impact — the undercurrent of emotional, psychological, and communal defeat. What is lost in urban displacement is difficult to articulate and even more challenging to address on the massive scale these mutant climate disasters continue to generate. Without our community fabric, the connections and interactions that bring us support, purpose, and belonging, we, too, are undone. The physical tasks of recovery, from rebuilding homes to restarting businesses, become impossible without the emotional ones.

A home in Puerto Rico with the word ‘HELP’ painted on its roof is seen a half-mile from a helicopter Sept. 24, 2017 (Image by U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff, Creative Commons).

This is what the responding agencies in Buffalo Creek missed, and what we have the chance to rectify for Montecito, other surviving communities now, and those still to come. The Buffalo Creek responders focused on maximized efficiency without pause for understanding that restoring community connectedness counts just as much as rebuilding physical structures. It is, in fact, the driving factor that fosters resilience — an asset we will need to tap time and again in an increasingly disaster-rich world.

Erikson found that “[t]he closeness of communal ties is experienced on Buffalo Creek as part of the natural order of things, and residents can no more describe that presence than fish are aware of the water they swim in.”

He is careful to articulate his use of “communality” rather than “community,” as it underlines the dynamic sociological organism to which we all belong — one that affords us the familiarity that quietly sustains our daily lives. It’s texting a neighbor in a pinch to let the dog out, or watching one another’s kids. Mighty modern disasters demolish this foundational, localized human connectedness without regard for socioeconomic status. Mud sweeps away homes of all sizes, victims of all creeds, and wipes clean the same communality from them all.

As an industry professional, I often consider this loss of communality in my work. How can mass sheltering plans incorporate sustained communality? How can local governments instill and grow psychological hardiness in individuals and their interwoven communities? My field has not trained me to answer these questions, but robust fields of study exist where these questions are answered all the time, if perhaps less directly, and there is much to be gained from collaboration.

Our humanity is more complex than the traditional tools of [Emergency Management] are designed to address.

It is possible to plan for and preserve communal connectedness in the wake of destruction — and we must. The Emergency Management profession must now turn toward the social sciences for deeper understanding. We must enlist anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers to broaden our planning and response horizons. Our humanity is more complex than the traditional tools of this discipline are designed to address.

Like so many essential human capacities, this resilience may not come from official agencies on high, but from the grassroots. I witnessed this when I stood in a field of debris in a rural, tornado-torn Alabama town and worked side-by-side with residents, grief-stricken yet determined, to dig out their lives. I see it manifested in crowd-sourced efforts like Louisiana’s Cajun Navy, a volunteer corps that self-deploys flat-bottom boats to hurricane-ravaged Gulf States for highly coordinated search and rescue.

Perhaps the solution to reliving Buffalo Creek’s fate lies within the community itself, and local officials need simply to foster a conversation about what a worst-case scenario might look like at a neighborhood scale. I believe the resources for communal recovery already exist within the proverbial water in which we all swim. The collective step forward must involve planning and response agencies working in tandem with social scientists and community groups to identify and lift up the resilience that communities already possess, and translate those strengths into tangible plans to knit our social fabric back together.

Nina Rubenstein is an Emergency Manager in Portland, Oregon, with a degree in Homeland Security Studies from Tulane University.