A few days ago, in my last post, I wrote that Hurricane Harvey would last a few days, but the recovery would last years. However agonizingly long Harvey appears to be taking to inflict its misery on the Texas Gulf Coast, and now parts of southern Louisiana, it will go away. And then the real marathon will begin. People will have to face the necessity of reconstruction, both as individuals and as whole communities.
In writing about this now, I am crediting readers with a longer attention span than seems to be assumed of most Americans on social media today. I truly hope, however, that the news media does not forget about Harvey or the Gulf Coast as the recovery process grinds on over coming months and years. Certainly, most residents of the Texas coast will have little choice but to bear with the process, and ideally, they will participate. Recovery needs to be as participatory as possible to succeed fully.
It will not always be a pretty picture. The news media in recent days have been full of photographic and video evidence of the best aspects of humanity—people in boats rescuing neighbors and strangers alike, public safety personnel risking personal safety as they save people from flooded homes and transport them to shelters, and other heroic acts away from cameras and too numerous to count. People from other states and nations will contribute to disaster-related charities to help people they have never known and may never meet. Politics and race and religion will all take a back seat to saving lives and reducing suffering. For just a brief moment in history, we can stop shouting at each other long enough to care for each other and be proud of one another.
Several years ago, Rebecca Solnit produced an intriguing book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that explored many of the positive community-building relationships that emerge when people are challenged by adverse circumstances such as major natural disasters. It is a journalistic journey through the informal alliances and communities created by people under what seemingly are the worst possible conditions, but which challenge our humanity and force us to consider how we value those around us. It is an optimistic book that forces readers to rethink what it means to live through a disaster. I have always hoped that it would spark similar efforts among academic researchers, particularly in the social sciences, to study this phenomenon more closely. I think that is happening to some extent, but perhaps not nearly enough.
The Texas Gulf Coast communities stricken by Harvey will need as much of that spirit as they can muster to produce successful long-term recovery. Recovery takes years because, while no one wants to delay rebuilding unnecessarily, hasty rebuilding that fails to consider the failure points that allowed destruction to occur is even more undesirable. Under considerable time pressures, which researchers Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson, both wonderful friends of mine, have notably referred to as the problem of “time compression” in disaster recovery, planners and local and state officials will need to meet with constituents, hear their concerns, explain both the obstacles and opportunities involved in reconstruction, and ideally, inform the public process to help lead to a better outcome. During this time, minor and modest repairs may go forward while the bigger decisions, like where to buy out damaged properties, how to rebuild infrastructure and to what new standards, and how to produce a stronger, more resilient community to handle future disasters may need to undergo vigorous debate.
I point this out because, inevitably, and despite Solnit’s rosy scenarios in the context of community building, tempers will rise and people will need to iron out significant differences and widely varying perceptions of the causes of, and solutions to, the damage that occurred. There will surely be some debate about Houston’s sprawling development patterns and relative lack of development controls. There may be debates about strengthening building or zoning codes or, in Houston, the absence of zoning. If there is any echo of Hurricane Sandy, there may be discussion of a greater role for green infrastructure in mitigating hazards, though that alone would have made only modest difference in the flooding from Harvey, but it might have helped.
More importantly, people will have undergone trauma that will make them deeply and justifiably emotional about the disruption of their lives. They will bring that trauma, and a need to vent and share their fears and anger, to public meetings. Public officials will need to exhibit patience because, as Christine Butterfield, another good friend who served as community development director in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during and after the 2008 floods, has noted, those public gatherings will be therapeutic. People may cry, they may yell, they may accuse. Most of all, they need to know that someone else wants to hear and share their pain. They want to know that someone cares. Once most have achieved that comfort level, they may be ready to move forward and discuss options for recovery. But first, community leaders must build trust.
Some people may never trust, and the rest of the community may need to move on. Life is not perfect. Human beings are not perfect. Recovery cannot wait forever, but it must demonstrate compassion and a commitment to social equity.
In a few weeks, the entire process will begin, and people will decide what role they want to play. Leaders will arise in unexpected places. Just last week, my students at the University of Iowa School or Urban and Regional Planning, during a field trip with which I launch my course on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery” every year, heard from United Methodist pastor Clint Twedt-Ball, a co-founder and executive director of Matthew 25, a community organization that arose from almost nothing after the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids to help rebuild 25 blocks of downtrodden neighborhoods in the city, raising money but also making tough decisions about what would work and what would not. Nine years later, his organization is still working to make a difference. Before 2008, Clint would confess, he knew next to nothing about floods or community development. My guess is that now he could nearly write a book. Who knew?
Watch Houston, and Rockport, and Corpus Christi, and all the other cities on the Texas Gulf Coast for both surprises and struggles, and mostly for deep human engagement in solving massive redevelopment problems the likes of which most of us will never have to confront. And be ready to cheer them on when good things happen. They are likely to need the encouragement from time to time.