The thought of hundreds of thousands of people resetting their lives after Florence, with unknown results, just as with Harvey and Maria last year, can be exhausting when you’ve experienced something similar firsthand. But part of that calm detachment I feel comes from knowing that, for the most part, for most people, things are eventually going to be okay, will eventually seem “normal.” It’s just the getting there that can be tough.
Around the fifth anniversary of Katrina I helped write and edit How to Rebuild a City: Field Guide from a Work in Progress, a citizens’-eye view of post-storm New Orleans.
From our collective experience, here’s what might prove helpful—right after the storm, and even long after the TV cameras are gone.
Make space for your sanity in the immediate stress of the disaster; don’t watch too much television. Some self-medication is permissible. Gutting houses and clearing debris (your former life) is exhausting. Take time out for yourself—nature walks, out-of-town trips, pedicures. Try to keep organized and document everything. This is so much easier now with the ubiquity of smartphones. Stay on top of the insurance adjusters. Also: write things down, not only for the adjusters, but because it helps keep your overloaded brain focused. Set attainable goals. Mourn when you need to.
Don’t wait around for the city or country to replace the street signs—make your own. Are the Red Cross trucks scarce in your neighborhood? Organize your own relief effort. Assemble an armada of buddies on lawn mowers and mow the neglected parks. Papers not reporting something important? Become a citizen journalist. If civic resources are taxed, you can marshal your community resources and step in.
Identify the obstacles to your recovery and pool resources and knowledge with other equally fired-up individuals. Get involved in your neighbor organization, or other community groups. After a disaster, you can lose years of your life to meetings, but it’s important to physically connect with others, and a community’s needs can be amplified if given a collective voice.
The potential loss of culture in the face of mass displacement and devastation is a real danger to a community’s being, its identity. Help those restaurants re-open. Encourage the art installations and book projects and free concerts. Poets are the cultural first responders; attend their readings. Filmmakers will be everywhere. Make sure they get your story right.
Be prepared for the long haul. Or decide you can’t bear it: A generation of rebuilding isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine too. The option of taking the insurance money (fingers crossed) and moving to a less threatened environment is a perfectly reasonable option. Though you will be missed, and people might resent you for a while. Or, tragically, as in the case of Katrina, some people just won’t be able to return, too many things barring their path home.