Close Enough to Get Your Attention


This was a day that got me thinking about how we react to disasters. I’ve certainly had the opportunity to work on other people’s disasters, not so much in the direct sense of being involved daily for months on end, but at least in supplying training on recovery, advice on plans, and the other types of bits and pieces of aid that a researcher or consultant is often able to provide. And I’ve studied other people’s disasters in great detail in order to distill the selective wisdom that finds its way into reports and articles and presentations that share the knowledge thus accrued. But there is always some sense of distance, even when one knows personally some people who live and work in the communities affected, or who were directly affected themselves.


I cannot say that what happened in northern Illinois today brought things all the way home to an intense personal experience with disaster. Not even close. The worst that happened to me is that I will fly to Washington, D.C., tomorrow after United Airlines canceled my flight this afternoon at the height of the storm. But there was the threat for a while. High winds and drenching rain dominated the skies outside, but I was always safely inside—except for the brief moment when I went outside to induce my wife and one daughter and her four-year-old son to come inside after they parked on the street in the rain. Our neurotic Springer Spaniel ran out after me when our grandson failed to hold on to him, then jumped inside the car onto the front seat to accompany my wife to the garage. He has panics in storms that make him do things like that, things that seem counterintuitive considering that he is afraid of storms. Inside the house, he shakes in fear and nestles alongside you for reassurance. Dogs are as strange and as irrational at times as people, which may be why they bond with us so well.


But for two hours—roughly the period during which the Bears/Ravens game was suspended on Chicago’s Channel 2 (CBS) because of the storm—I found myself watching the storm watch to get the latest. There was a tornado spotted in Wilmington, headed northeast at 55 miles per hour, and estimated times were posted for when it would possibly arrive in Chicago and Evanston if it continued its track. It never did. But later it was reported that there may have been as many as 10 tornadoes, though some sightings may have been multiple touchdowns of the same tornado. I still don’t know six or seven hours later how many there really were. I suppose I will find out in tomorrow morning’s newspaper, or some other way. But by 8 a.m., I shall be headed to O’Hare International Airport to catch the flight I did not catch today. In the midst of the commotion, my cell phone rang, and United told me in its automated way that my flight had been canceled. I called back to rebook to find the robot voice asking if I was calling about my Monday flight. That made me wonder whether they had automatically rebooked me, so I checked my e-mail. I had been checking the flight status online, repeatedly finding that everything was on time—until it no longer was. Now United e-mailed me to say that I was on a flight for 11:05 a.m., replacing my 4:05 p.m. today. I hung up and decided to leave well enough alone. I e-mailed two people from the Georgetown Climate Center in Washington, D.C., to indicate that I would not arrive on time for the Monday workshop to which I had been invited. The workshop was to explore the leveraging of federal post-disaster money to support climate change initiatives. Here we were, being attacked in the Chicago metropolitan area by tornadoes in November. Irony? Perhaps. At any rate, I indicated, “there is no arguing with Mother Nature.” I would not be at the workshop bright and early Monday morning, but would arrive in mid-afternoon, participating only at the tail end. There was nothing I could do about it.


But as the day wore on, I realized that those horrific scenes of devastation I had associated with more faraway places like Greensburg, Kansas, and Joplin, Missouri, were now just a drive down the highway in towns like Pekin, Washington, Frankfort, and Coal City, all somewhere in northern Illinois, some relatively close to Chicago. That no tornado, so far as I know, found its way into Chicago itself seems now more dumb luck than anything else. The storm path could easily have brought them here.


Still, it is close but not really at my doorstep. I see it on television, the houses burst into splinters, the trucks overturned, cars mangled, and whole neighborhoods denuded of tree cover. But outside my door, what I see is merely a very wet lawn. Maybe there are lots of loose tree branches I can no longer see in the dark. But if I want to assess storm damage personally, I will have to drive down the road about an hour or so. Not far away but far enough. And I won’t be able to do that, if I decide it is the least bit helpful anyway, until I get back from my trip to Washington, foreshortened from three days to two. In the meantime, the emergency managers, whose job is much more immediate in such circumstances than that of planners addressing long-term recovery, will be out there doing what they are trained to do. They will find bodies, if there are any, get medical aid for the injured, get the streets cleared, and assess the damages, with the help of building officials.


Still, I expect that we will have a lot to ponder in this region. Some people may be ennobled by the experience in ways they never expected. Three years ago, I read the excellent book by Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, about the ways in which neighbors often rise to the occasion to build camaraderie where it is least expected. And just this past week, while traveling to St. Louis, to speak at the Sustainable Disaster Recovery Conference sponsored by St. Louis University, I was reading a book by Rabbi Niles Goldstein, God at the Edge, in which he makes the argument that we tend to find the divine presence in moments of crisis, not when sitting on a mountaintop under blue skies. It would be nice if that happened for the towns I mentioned above. They will need all the help they can get, even when it comes from people who never knew before that they had the qualities of leadership. It has happened before. Just ask the folks in Greensburg or Joplin. I had the chance to do exactly that during the conference in St. Louis. And I am sure they are busy right now praying for people in various towns in Illinois. After all, they already know what comes next in restoring life to a blown-out town.

Jim Schwab

High and Dry on the Waterfront

This posting is not my typical essay, but simply a link to a free download, for a limited time, of a Zoning Practice article I recently authored for the American Planning Association. “High and Dry on the Waterfront” discusses an issue covered in my October 14 blog entry, “Living Densely on the Urban Waterfront,” about the challenges of rebuilding in dense urban neighborhoods in New York, New Jersey, and other places hit last year by Hurricane Sandy. If you simply click on the home page panel with the article name, that will take you to the download to read the article itself, which you can download as a PDF. Enjoy.

Jim Schwab