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On August 28, 2011, US Route 100 leading into the mountain town of Rochester, Vermont simply ended. And so did every other road leading in and out of town.
That was the day Tropical Storm Irene washed away roads and bridges and homes throughout the region, leaving 13 towns cut off from the outside world. It was hours before anyone managed to get in or out of Rochester, and even then only by ATV and on foot. It was days before most people could communicate with anyone outside of town. It was weeks before power was restored and roads were passable to anyone other than emergency crews.
Rather than hunkering down in their homes and waiting for someone to rescue them, people got to work. In one neighborhood, residents built a makeshift pedestrian bridge over the still-raging White River to reach dozens of isolated homes. Anyone with a truck or tractor or piece of heavy equipment immediately started working to repair roads. The general store and restaurants gave away food. And hundreds of residents (in a town of just over 1,100) gathered each day for town meetings and even celebrations on the Village Green.
Make no mistake, Rochester needed help. But everyone in town was fine. They knew what they had (volunteers, trucks, freezers full of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) and what they needed (water, diapers, kidney medication). Remarkably, without phones or email, power or roads, the community managed to account for and care for each and every one of its residents.
This is not just a story about a storm in Vermont. It’s about Moore, Oklahoma and Greensboro, Kansas, New Orleans, Long Island and Colorado. It’s about climate change and violent crime, about floods and fires, peak oil and terrorist attacks, flu epidemics and the zombie apocalypse. It’s about preventing these things, but even more about adapting to them and recovering from them. It’s about being strong enough to withstand whatever comes along.
For many communities today, disaster isn’t a matter of if. It’s a matter of when and where, how bad and what next. How can communities prepare themselves for these daunting eventualities?
The answer boils down to community resilience—how strong a community is and how well it’s able to bounce back from crisis. Resilience, in turn, hinges on a simple, yet surprising factor: how well you know your neighbors.
The recent increase in severe storms has given us more opportunities to observe communities in disaster situations. Yes, things like sea walls and evacuation plans matter. But as sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote in The New Yorker this winter:
“A strategy of resilience will involve more than changes to our physical infrastructure. Increasingly, governments and disaster planners are recognizing the importance of social infrastructure: the people, places and institutions that foster cohesion and support.”
Research shows that tighter-knit communities are far better off than those whose residents have weak connections to each other and to their local government, organizations, and other social networks. Klinenberg analyzed how different neighborhoods in Chicago fared in the 1995 heat wave that killed 700 people, for example, and found that residents were far less likely to die in neighborhoods with strong social connections.
Orton’s Heart & Soul method wasn’t designed to help communities deal with disasters. But it was designed to improve engagement, communication, collaboration and relationships—exactly the factors that boost resilience and help communities deal with crises as well as day-to-day challenges.
In our work with CommunityMatters partners, we call this strengthening civic infrastructure. It takes hard work and planning, but communities can build the civic infrastructure they need to stay safe just as surely as they can build drainage channels and tornado shelters.
Look at Victor, Idaho, where participants in the Envision Victor Heart & Soul project explored a Neighborhood Block Emergency Preparedness program. Dramatic population growth in the last decade meant that residents increasingly didn’t know one another and were not plugged into the social networks necessary to survive a disaster. A local emergency network would change that, providing people with a hub for sharing resources, equipment, emergency medical support, phone numbers, you name it.
Consider San Francisco, California, where an earthquake is long overdue. The Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN)—what sounds like a softhearted social welfare program—is actually a core component of the City’s emergency management program. It’s not just about earthquakes: the NEN aims for the larger goal of “creating safe, clean, healthy and economically resilient communities.” The skills and tools available to residents help them organize for disasters and build a more vibrant community.
Civic infrastructure isn’t something that just sits around until you need it for a 100-year flood; communities that take the time to build it benefit every day. It improves interactions among neighbors and fuses relationships between citizens and government. Ultimately, it strengthens local character as well as local economies, and creates a more engaged and self-sufficient community.
A government can’t make this happen for its citizens; civic infrastructure is, by its nature, a grassroots effort. No one knows what they have and what they need better than residents themselves, and in a disaster, it’s exactly that DIY, all-hands-on-deck mentality that can mean the difference between survival and collapse.
Today, Rochester, Vermont residents do pretty much what they did before Irene. They go about their jobs and go to school, they volunteer, they connect with their neighbors, they gather on the green for community festivals and potluck suppers. These commonplace ways of living in a place are at the root of why they made it through Irene, why their town remains healthy, and why they’ll bounce back from whatever hits next.
When’s the last time you planned a potluck like your life depended on it? Because it just might.
Our atmosphere’s getting all gunky.
And climate change makes us feel funky.
But we’ll change our fate!
And celebrate with Chunky Monkey!
Even if you don’t have a clue what Vermontivate! is, there’s a good bet that an initiative that plasters this limerick on their homepage has got to be fun.
Read on and you discover that Vermontivate! is a community energy game—an interactive way to get people to conserve energy. Players compete to earn points for their town. Change an old tungsten bulb to a compact fluorescent, collect points. Start composting, more points. Reduce your household consumption of paper products by half...total pointfest. Install solar panels and you’ve hit the point equivalent of the carnival strong man bell. Basically, do anything you can think of to lessen your dependence on fossil fuels to compete for the grand prize: a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream party hosted in a local gathering place.
Why play Vermontivate!? The website makes it clear: “(W)e believe that by having fun and building community, we stand a good chance of helping each other reduce the impacts of our energy consumption AND bring hope and infinite possibility to the beautiful land of Vermont. And the world.”More
Sara Grier is External Relations Manager for ShickshinnyForward.
Natural disasters bring a level of destruction to communities that is difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it.
While the physical ruination of shops, schools, homes and businesses takes an enormous toll, it is often the devastation of the emotional “soul” of a community that makes re-building such an uphill effort.
For the cities and towns along the Susquehanna River, the flood of September 2011 surpassed anything experienced in over 100 years. Shickshinny, PA, population 800, was one of the hardest hit communities. Since the flood, the town has not only drained basements and repaired roads; it has taken this opportunity to make itself “home” once again.More
When I go traveling to another country, I always take a book that helps me get in the right mindset. Oftentimes I choose fiction that takes place in that particular country. But this time as I packed for Italy, I made room in my suitcase for a fabulous collection of Paul Bowles collected writings entitled Travels.
While none of this book takes place in Italy, focusing more on Tangiers, where he lived for most of his life, and Morocco, in which he traveled extensively, it’s a book about exploring foreign lands. Bowles regales the reader with hilarious tales of near disasters, describes wonderful characters he meets along the way, and reflects on what it means to be traveling in a country other than one’s own.
In a re-published piece entitled “Windows on the Past” written in 1957 about his travels in Europe, Bowles argues that Americans travel to Europe to regain their connections to the past. We get lost, he claims, in the vast American melting pot, in a society always transforming and remaking itself, focused more on techniques and gadgets than something deeper and more meaningful. So we go to Europe seeking something else, something he labels “culture”.More
Now that it’s almost March, and officially “late winter,” it’s becoming nearly impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. Despite the storm this weekend that dumped more than two feet in the mountains, this winter has skiers and snow-sport enthusiasts of all sorts scratching their heads. January 2012 was the 3rd least snowy in the NOAA’s national 117-year record, and the 4th warmest.
Taking advantage of this weekend’s storm, I headed to the mountains. After a long ski through the first powder of the year, I ended at a small Inn and cross-country ski center where I had a chance to see first hand how the lack of snow is affecting the state’s winter economy.More
Several weeks ago, Middlebury College opened the Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a new program encouraging students to take an active role in their education while accomplishing good at the same time. For its inaugural symposium, the Center brought a number of people to speak and teach.
I had the good fortune to attend two of the talks. The first was by Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka-Innovators for the Public. Bill focused on the need to develop systems that can adapt quickly and effectively, vital in our rapidly changing world. He argued that traditionally structured systems need to give way to teams and teams-of-teams as a way to unleash individual creativity and remain nimble and responsive to challenges and opportunities. He also shared a few inspiring examples of work by Ashoka Fellows.More
On the last weekend in January, a small crowd of onlookers gathers at the edge of Brookfield Pond in central Vermont for what is – these days – a most unusual spectacle. An odd contraption of wooden beams and iron hardware stands on a patch of ice surrounded by rusted old saws and oversized tongs. A local historian narrates as two men move to the center of the ice and begin sawing. After a few minutes they use a strange fork to pry loose a block more than a foot thick. An ingenious lever system easily lifts this 300-pound block of ice off the water and lands it safely on the surface, frozen before it hits the ground.More
Last winter I gained a new appreciation for speed limits. During a month-long internship at the New York City Department of Transportation, I spent a lot of time working on safety initiatives to reduce speeding. I learned that 30 mph, the speed limit in most cities, is not arbitrary. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 40 mph is 3.5 times more likely to die than one hit at 30 mph. An entire campaign, “That’s Why It’s 30,” is built around this fact.
Coming from rural New England, speed limits have always been more of a nuisance than anything else. Slowing to 25 mph through an empty town, on a wide road with no crosswalks or sidewalks, sometimes feels silly. We do it to avoid a ticket, but I don’t often think about the real implications of speeding in these areas.More