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Thoughts in the Midst of a Disaster: Resilience, Beauty, and Feedback Loops

By Carolyn Raffensperger On the morning of August 11th, 2010 residents in Ames Iowa were awakened by a robo-call from the city. “Prepare for unprecedented flooding. Move to high ground. “ Squaw Creek and the Skunk River rose to heights never before seen, even in the disastrous floods of 1993. Soon all roads in and out of Ames and many inside were impassible except by boat.

At 2:30 we received another call. There were 8 breaks in the water main and residents of Ames were without water. We will not have safe drinking water for a week. I heard that there were fights at the grocery store over the few remaining cases of bottled water. All restaurants have closed as has Iowa State University.

Thoughts in the midst of a disaster

1. The measure of a community’s resilience will be taken in the aftermath of a storm or disaster. 2. We need to set in motion feedback loops that increase resilience rather than the feedback loops that decrease resilience.  Every action must reduce the odds of more frequent and worse disasters. For example, buying lots of bottled water actually increases the chance of more climate chaos creating positive feedback loops of disaster. In contrast, rain barrels are likely to minimize flooding and don’t require fossil fuels to transport the water and are locally available sources of clean water in the event of an emergency. 3. Climate chaos adaptation and mitigation strategies must also be prevention strategies. We have to find ways to adapt to rising temperatures and more intense storms without increasing greenhouse gases or the consequences of the storms such as flooding. 4. Generosity and acts of heroism are contagious. Hoarding and selfishness are equally contagious. The social fabric can unravel in the face of hoarding. It can be tightened into a safety net by preparation, communication, and sharing. 5. Self-sufficiency is insufficient. Community sufficiency is essential. Communities will minimize suffering if they have redundant survival systems  such as water, shelter, transportation, food, communication. It helps to have a Plan B. 6. Beauty matters. In the most difficult circumstances one perfect poem, one exquisitely expressive song, is a life-line in the wreckage. 7. During disasters, nights can be excruciating and filled with the angst that is unique to 3:00 am. In the middle of the night solastalgia is at its worst. The nights leading up to the Ames flood were nonstop torrential, violent rain and endless thunder and lightening, unlike a “normal” storm that comes through with all of its energy and leaves behind cooler fresher air. We will need to create cultural competencies for dealing with the literal dark of the dark times. Stories, songs, popcorn, lemonade or hot chocolate. 8. Local strategies that are tailored to our home geographies and ecosystems and that create local community integrity, resilience, and beauty will in the end determine whether there are fires in Russia or flooding in China, Pakistan and Ames Iowa…or not. 9. The Zen practice (Ok, the Iroquois practice) of asking how every action will affect the 7th generation will lead to the palace of wisdom and community resilience. Bottled water or rain barrels? Bike or car? 10. The Christian practice of asking who is my neighbor and then caring for them will lead to community sufficiency. And as Wavy Gravy said to those at the Woodstock concert, “look at the person on your right and left. That is your neighbor.”