The People Affected by Harvey

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.

FEMA teams managing the distribution of water, and meals for hundreds of semi-trucks at an incident Support Base in Seguin, Texas. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Aug 29, 2017 (from FEMA website) 

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.

Jim Schwab

“We are all Steven Sotloff”

In view of American journalist Steven Sotloff’s fate—beheading at the hands of the Islamic State rebels who now control much of Syria—this is a rather dramatic statement. It came from Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Journalism School in New York. He was speaking over lunch at a workshop, “Disasters and Extreme Weather,” at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans. His speech lay between my lunch and the panel on which I myself spoke, the first of the afternoon, which was intended to provide a toolkit of ideas for freelance and other writers covering disasters.

The point was, in part, that Steven Sotloff, however dramatic his fate, was not the first, nor would he be the last, journalist to suffer trauma or even death as a result of his work. In fact, he was the second journalist in a matter of weeks to suffer beheading by the Islamic State, following an earlier incident involving James Foley, who had already survived captivity in Libya. In typical, grisly fashion, the Islamic State terrorists had recorded and broadcast on the Internet the murders of both men. They are not seeking admiration; they seek fear.

Reaction to such trauma was the theme of Shapiro’s bold presentation. We have not always understood such reactions; in fact, says Shapiro, what understanding we do now possess is relatively recent, largely an outgrowth of the Vietnam War, after which many thousands of veterans began to suffer the impacts of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Our understanding of what we used to call “shell shock” was once so poor that only our sense of humanity, and not psychological knowledge, produced the adverse reaction in World War II when Gen. Patton slapped a shaken soldier in the hospital in Italy and called him a coward.

After Vietnam, Shapiro says, “psychologists began to notice something. Clinicians realized they were on to something new.” Patients were suffering not from the awkward childhood memories that were long the focus of Freudian analysis, but from “memories that were too big to contain.” Resulting from severe trauma in wars and disasters and from torture, these memories “intruded on the daily lives” of their victims. The Dart Center, he said, is “working on representative survivors,” who may have survived torture under dictatorial Latin American regimes, as well as combat in Vietnam or wars in the Middle East. In 1980, he noted, the American Psychiatric Association finally decided to recognize PTSD, and the term has become common parlance since then, even if not everyone grasps what it really is or its practical implications. But it goes a long way toward explaining the persistence of homeless veterans, or those who withdraw into solitary life in the woods.

“We need to understand these changes to be innovative, effective journalists,” Shapiro told the crowd. We need meaningful coverage before, during, and after disasters. People store these overlarge memories in different ways, but the bottom line is that effective responses to danger, based on inherited mechanisms of fight or flight, become “maladaptive when we’re safe.” Thus, the Vietnam veteran who is easily rattled by fireworks or loud responses that trigger learned mechanisms for reacting to enemy fire. Once stored in the body’s defenses, these reactions are hard to unlearn.

But Shapiro was not discussing this with reporters simply to make them better observers of the phenomena he described. He told them bluntly that they, too, could become victims of trauma through their work in covering disasters. Hence, the headline quote of this article. Journalists have long learned to “suck it up,” he said, but in fact that may be the wrong approach entirely, however tough or macho it may sound. The myth was that, if you could not handle it, maybe you were in the wrong profession.

Shapiro instead outlined what he considered “three basic mechanisms of significance for our work as reporters”:

1)      Intrusion. This is the unwanted presence of memories that are not going away. Intrusive memory overwhelms the mind’s memory.

2)      Biomechanical. This is hyperarousal, the inability to focus. Those suffering from it have great difficulty establishing trust and become angry. They live permanently on the “fight or flight” threshold.

3)      Numbness. Eventually, some victims avoid interaction with other humans that may arouse problems. They sink into withdrawal from society.

These impacts are not mutually exclusive; in fact, Shapiro noted the possibility of victims being “whipsawed between impacts.” This is of particular importance for journalists because, he said, “We rely on our ability to concentrate and ability to build trusting relationships as journalists. We all know journalists who are casualties.” Trauma and personal injury are of particular significance for environmental journalists because of the subject matter they routinely cover. “Psychological trauma is measurably worse when there is human agency involved,” he noted. “When human technology plays a significant role in disaster, there are more enduring problems for more people. The failures of leadership in Katrina were so profound.” Hurricane Katrina, he noted, was “interwoven with violence and urban poverty.”

Shapiro made one important point about connecting with traumatized victims of disaster, even if one must also, as a reporter seeking to reveal truth, sometimes discount some of what one hears. Instead of “pulling at heartstrings” or asking detailed or pointed questions, why not just ask, “What happened to you?” Then let the story spill out as the victim wishes to tell it.

Journalists, he asserted, need to think about themselves as well as their subjects. They can, among other things, suffer from “vicarious trauma” in covering the disasters that have befallen others. Environmental journalists often find themselves reporting on “abuses of power, the trauma of losing power and status.” People fall victim to the whim of violent actors and corrupt politicians, and “when abuses of power are involved, all those injuries become worse. Nowhere more important than on the ground of environmental issues and climate change amplified by official abuses.”

“Avoiding the subject of trauma for journalists is actively destructive,” he concluded.

The answer: Stay connected with others and believe in what you are doing. “Ethical journalism practice in the face of trauma protects us,” he told the audience. He concluded by quoting Rachel Carson, the renowned author of Silent Spring, who wrote, “Who has made the decision that sets in motion this wave of poison?”

Shapiro did not say this, but I have to wonder: Is it also possible that positive religious belief, that is, faith in a loving God, is also part of the remedy? Clearly, it is possible to have a religion of hatred, or Steven Sotloff might still be alive, but that is not a religion of healing and spirituality. Reporters sometimes like to think they are above that sort of faith, but in the face of trauma, might they be missing an ingredient for survival? I like to think there is a greater purpose in what we do. And I have seen more than a few disasters myself.


Jim Schwab