What effect do natural and other disasters have on the underlying culture of a community? This was the driving question that led to the development of Shareable’s The Response project three years ago.
On the heels of the release of “Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons,” we began thinking more about how the climate crisis (and the increasing barrage of disasters it was exacerbating) would affect the sharing initiatives and policies we outlined in the book — and on shareable.net in general.
Through two seasons of The Response podcast, the publishing of a book, and the production of our first film we’re learning that disasters bring out the best in people (aka pro-social behavior) and that, more often than not, the shared experience of a crisis strengthens community ties in the short and long term. When a disaster occurs, most people experience what Scott Crow refers to as the emergency heart, the thing that drives you towards passion and compassion about the world; the spark that compels you to take action when you see a disaster or when you see the vulnerable people or communities around you being negatively impacted.
And it’s a good thing that this is our natural reaction to a crisis, because all evidence points to the amount and severity of disruptions intensifying over the next few years.
Right now, during the global COVID-19 pandemic, this is more evident than ever. The sheer number of local support groups, mobile health clinics, and rent strike initiatives, that have emerged to fill the needs of communities is incredibly encouraging. The concept of mutual aid has suddenly become mainstream.
Over the course of our work on The Response, we’ve documented stories from Occupy Sandy in NYC, UndocuFund in Northern California, Verificado19S in Mexico City, Centros de Apoyo Mutuos (mutual aid centers) in Puerto Rico, the reimagining of the town of Onagawa in Japan, the fight for justice following the Grenfell Tower fire in London, and so many more.
Here are 20 lessons from The Response that have emerged so far:
1 – Disasters bring out all emotions (and that’s ok).
It is important to assume the best of intentions of others and to give ourselves the freedom to experience a wave of emotions (even long after the physical signs of a crisis have passed).
2 – The depth and breadth of our relationships (social ties) have proven to not only assist relief efforts but often make the difference between life and death.
In Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami or in Chicago during the heatwave in 1995, research has shown that communities with strong social networks have lower fatalities from disasters and bounce back better than those with weak social networks.
3 – Misinformation will always spread faster during times of chaos and confusion, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to stop it from doing so.
4 – Work with what you have.
The majority of the community-led disaster response and recovery efforts we’ve investigated have been incredibly effective using basic tools with very little funding. Look no further than Verificado19S to see what spreadsheets, maps, and a text group can accomplish. This effort also provides a great example of how to combat misinformation (see #3).
5 – What happens on the community level can have a positive influence on official policy both during and after the fact.
Verificado19S is a clear example of this as well. At a certain point in the response to the Pueblo Earthquake, police began contacting Verificado volunteers to find out where they should dispatch resources. After the initial recovery from the earthquake passed, volunteers regrouped to reflect. They compiled their best practices which were then turned into a set of protocols that have been adopted by almost 60 institutions. Listen to this episode of The Response podcast to learn more about Verificado19S.
6 – Disasters provide the space for new unlikely relationships to form.
In the first episode of The Response podcast, we heard an incredible story from NYC after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. After a mutual aid initiative began pumping out flooded basements in the Rockaways neighborhood, one woman’s perception about other people was changed forever: “A month before the storm if I would have seen people looking like you, I wouldn’t have given them directions for the train. But then a month after the storm I’d given you keys to my house,” she said. Listen to this episode of The Response podcast to learn more about Occupy Sandy.
7 – Disasters exacerbate existing inequalities often down race and class lines.
The impact of disasters is often strongly influenced by structural issues that already existed in the affected areas. (see #8)
8 – Those who are undocumented, nomadic, migrants, refugees, or otherwise displaced peoples often don’t receive the support they need.
They are generally ineligible for most financial support and are far less likely to have any safety net, paid sick days, or medical coverage. At the same time, they are far more likely to work in dangerous and precarious situations. One silver lining is that people are beginning to recognize these inequalities and want to do something about it. Undocufund, which was first launched in 2017 after the Tubbs Fire in Northern California, has become a model for solidarity which has spread to many other regions across the U.S. Listen to this episode of The Response podcast to learn more about UndocuFund.
9 – Disasters are getting worse and more frequent.
Since 1980, there has been an average of six major disasters in the United States every year (causing at least $1 billion in damages annually) according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In recent years that number has shot way up. In 2017 alone, 16 climate-fueled disasters led to thousands of deaths and $300 billion worth of damage. And that’s just in the U.S. That year, the world also experienced record-breaking flooding in Bangladesh, historic cyclones in Mozambique, and deadly landslides in Colombia.
10 – Millions of people are being displaced by climate-fueled disasters every year.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, over 17 million people were displaced by disasters globally in 2018. For context that’s roughly one and a half times the amount of displacements caused by conflicts and violence during the same time period.
11 – Governments are now openly admitting that they don’t have the capacity to save the day (in many cases).
If this wasn’t clear enough already, a report published by FEMA in 2018 acknowledged its inadequate response to Hurricane Maria while basically informing Puerto Ricans to expect very few improvements moving forward. The increased severity and occurrences of natural hazards coupled with a mix of austerity measures and state negligence have brought us to this point. To paraphrase UC Davis professor Keith Taylor, when markets and governments fail, we have us.
12 – Since government agencies can’t be relied upon, they should follow the leadership of community-led responses, whenever possible.
“Nothing for us without us” has been used to communicate the demand that no service or policy should be forced upon traditionally marginalized groups without the members of those groups affected by that policy participating from the beginning. This should also be the case during disasters. Impacted communities have the greatest understanding of what is needed and where it should go.
13 – Those who have experienced disaster will undoubtedly find a new sense of empathy for anyone else who experiences one in the future.
Allen Myers, a community organizer and filmmaker, whose family home was destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise California, traveled to Onagawa, Japan in 2019 to learn about how that city rebuilt after a devastating earthquake. Upon meeting community organizers and government officials, “there was this knowing,” he describes. “It was like we knew each other on a deeper level because of the experiences and the decisions that we were having to make. In leaving each conversation, there would just be a moment… and they would either say it or you would see it in their expressions, but you know, [there would be a moment] of support and understanding and saying, ‘you got this. I know it’s a long road ahead of you, but you can do this.’” Listen to this episode of The Response podcast to learn more about Paradise and Onagawa.
14 – The psychological trauma from disasters can last a long time after the physical effects of disasters are less visible.
Being an active participant in one’s own recovery, no matter how small, is incredibly empowering and can reduce the trauma. According to Dr. Jim Gordon from the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, “the antidote to trauma is staying in the present.” Listen to this episode of The Response podcast to hear more from Dr. Gordon.
15 – During and after a crisis, disaster capitalists will promote their self-serving agendas as a necessary step towards recovery while opening up new market opportunities.
This often includes the privatization of public goods and the general enclosure of the commons. The author and activist Naomi Klein provided an excellent context for this in her 2007 book, “The Shock Doctrine.” Read this article to learn how to combat coronavirus capitalism.
16 – A disaster is a terrible thing to waste.
The same reasons that make disasters ripe for profiteers to assert their own agendas, also provide a counter opportunity to build/take back public power. Things that never seemed possible before like guaranteed housing, food, and Universal Basic Income all of the sudden become possible. In Onagawa, Japan the residents were able to thoughtfully transform their experience from a catastrophic triple disaster to a once in a thousand-year opportunity. One path forward is through a Just Recovery as articulated by Movement Generation. The five core principles of a Just Recovery offer a path forward towards racial, economic, and environmental justice. These principles are root cause remedies, revolutionary self-governance, rights-based organizing, reparations, and ecological restoration for resilience. Listen to this episode of The Response podcast to learn about how Puerto Ricans are building popular power.
17 – The most effective time to build collective resilience is before a disaster happens in the first place.
Imagine if every community had a resilience hub? A space that was resilient unto itself (with backup power, food, water, shelter, sanitation), served as a regenerative model (utilizing permaculture, soil building, etc.), and actively worked to increase the overall resilience surrounding communities. The best place to start might be to add new resources and services to existing community spaces like schools, places of worship, community gardens, etc. Download a free process guide from Shareable to get started now.
18 – There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.
Much of the secondary harm that occurs as a result of disasters is driven by the fear of how others will react during a crisis. Look no further than the extrajudicial killings of people of color by the police and, mostly white, vigilantes after Hurricane Katrina. We desperately need a new narrative and compelling storytelling in the coverage of disasters in the news.
19 – The best technology we can deploy in the wake of a disaster might just be a kind of social technology.
Closely knit, organized, and empowered communities are more resilient before, during, and after catastrophes. They’re also better equipped to demand the resources they need to not only survive those acute disasters but to rebuild on a more just and sustainable basis.
20 – Disasters bring out the best in people (most of the time).
Look no further than the growing mutual aid movement that has gone mainstream in the past month. Thousands of people have found a new sense of place through working together with others to make sure that the needs of their community are being met during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This list just barely begins to scratch the surface of what we’ve learned from our coverage of disasters. Every story we have heard, every initiative we’ve investigated has revealed new insights into the human condition and the state of the world.
Let us know if there are other insights into disasters that you feel like should be included in this list by sending an email to [email protected] or share your own story of community-led disaster response or collective resilience initiative here.
If you would like to go deeper, check out all of our previous podcast episodes, book, and film. And finally, in the words of two time-traveling philosopher musicians, “be excellent to each other.”