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Disaster Dualities

July 4, 2009

Earlier this week, I finished reading Cheryl Wagner‘s recent book Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around.   The book recounts the three-year struggle she endured with her boyfriend Jake and their two basset hounds after Hurricane Katrina flooded their Mid-City New Orleans home.  Like all truly great reads, it made me sad to come to its end, but also grateful that the end was so hopeful.

In my early teens, the town where I grew up was hit by a very large tornado, which destroyed more than half the homes and buildings there killing 32 people.  Our house was spared, but virtually every landmark I knew was either obliterated or heavily damaged.  School schedules were disrupted for a couple of years.

Back then FEMA did not yet exist.  In retrospect, that was probably a good thing.   We pulled together and got things done.  Neighbors helped neighbors, and people from towns all over the state and voluntary organizations, some of which we had never even heard of, came and helped us through the worst of it.

Much of what we did was wrong, but we did what we had to do to get through the experience and knew full well as we went along that it might all be for naught.   (A subsequent tornado proved some of it was.)

As only someone with first-hand experience could, Cheryl Wagner captures perfectly the sense of persistent ambivalence that comes with living through disaster.  People who live through disaster know they have to move forward–not just for themselves but also for those who cannot.  But they are never again quite certain they are moving in the right direction or at the right pace.   This often makes staying where they are not only the best option, but the only one that allows them to keep their bearings.

That I too have first-hand experience of this disaster duality, which juxtaposes humor and grace with dysfunction and decay, makes Wagner’s searing, graceful, and often humorous retelling of her story both compelling and heartwarming.

These days I spend part of my time as a so-called emergency manager for local government.   I say so-called, because I have never really believed that we truly manage emergencies, or even our response to them for that matter.  To the contrary, we try not to let them manage us, if only by ensuring they do not rob us of our souls.   (In some ways, the now ancient moniker for what we do — civil defense — speaks more directly to what we do: Defending our collective selves and social sanity against the leakage of violence from the natural world into the cultural order.)

To the extent that the people of New Orleans or anyplace else can look back and say “we’re recovering,” it is because of (not in spite of) their ability to see in who they are and what they’ve been through the undisturbed essence of the best of what they had before the disaster tried to take it away.

Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around reminds us that disasters bring out the best and worst in each of us.  We are not what disaster makes of us, but what we make of the disaster.

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