Building the Civic Narrative After Disasters

The needless function of disasters: They blow a hole, short lived, into the media narrative that people are selfish and stupid. That the free market solves everything. That every person is an island.

Because people step up after a disaster for a good 3-4 days, until exhaustion sets in. They react heroically, selflessly-  they share or liberate lifesaving supplies-  they coordinate critical missions to save lives. They are more than consumers; buyers or sellers; employees.  They’re part of a community.

And that’s kind of covered in the media.  But not really.  It’s mostly ignored actually.  It’s being ignored this very moment- in Puerto Rico and North Carolina and Houston..  but if you want stories on looting, price gouging, or roofing scams- that’s a lot easier to find.

It’s easy to see why.  Within 5 minutes of watching Corporate News the narrative is clear:  people are  selfish-  there are threats and disasters around every corner- this is all unfixable- so don’t bother trying- and you don’t owe the world a thing. Some stations pioneered this broadcast of mass cynicism- but at this point they’re all following suit.

Even the narrative of the reckless billionaires serves a purpose-  it tells us that if we can be useless to society, so can we.  It normalizes the abandonment of our obligations.  We don’t owe shit to our community.  We estrange ourselves to our own Main Street; neighbors; city council.

One thing is clear- this is a race to the bottom.  And when that race is over-  and the sociopaths take off with their winnings – 99% of us will be losers.  Our treasuries depleted; average household debt skyrocketed towards bankruptcy- national lands pillaged with the trees gone, oil pumped, water dried up.  That future is dead- sterile and hopeless.  Someday- we may shake our heads and call it a tragedy.  But it’s being actively perpetuated by those who could care less about the future- and who promote the narrative of cynicism as inevitable- and the narrative of of sustainability as a naïve or privileged.

True sustainability is for everyone- everything- it is a honest discussion about what we actually want in life and how we can all simplify those desires into something shareable.  It’s not about winning lotteries or being the best in the universe-  it’s about being good and a part of a solution.  That can be good enough and the rest of life’s joys and passions can still follow. That’s what I’m hoping to be a part of.

We don’t need a disaster to discover these potentials in each other.  All that violence and destruction- it should be needless.  It is within our reach to make it needless, because we can build that society without losing everything first.  And we have every reason to call on the media to showcase such selfless virtues in the stories that come out of them.   The corporate media has their narrative, but we don’t have to accept or or let it become reality.  There’s plenty of community journalists out there still.  People who share our narratives- and show us hope- and move us act.  Not just for 3-4 days after the flood until we are depleted- exhausted. But for 3-4 generations until we figure this out.



Catastrophe Disaster and The Pursuit of Artificial

Catastrophe Disaster and The Pursuit of Artificial

A hallmark of western modern age medicine and health care has been to strive to not only imitate nature but to outdo nature. Where this influenced me the most in my primary field of work was the generation-long debate of which is better…breastfeeding or formula.  For a long period of time, marketers of formula had strong influence over the entire population in the US, backed by the education system for healthcare providers including doctors, nurses and government public health officials.  The Pursuit of Artificial (and its profit-making schemes) came at the expense of the natural.  If you wanted to breastfeed your infant, you had to go outside of the system because not only did the system shun you, it inferred you were not following best practices as a parent since breastfeeding was inferior to artificial and might even contain dangerous chemicals.

During those dark days in modern obstetrics, care givers even forgot how breastfeeding was suppose to work. If you were in most US hospitals during those days and you wanted to breastfeed, your baby was still given a bottle of glucose water by the nurses first.  Or you were given that bottle to feed your newborn before you attempted breastfeeding.  There were all kinds of “medical” reasons put forth as to why that bottle was policy.   Truth was that artificial formula does not contain the mother’s first milk, the natural laxative to start the bowels working.  Glucose water was given to be the artificial substitute.  Another example from my early RN experience was the policy that only the delivering mother and the medical team were allowed to witness the birth.  And during labor, support persons were not allowed to stay at the bedside, only to visit at the bedside a few minutes each hour.  Natural childbirth as we know it today with its support system was never an option.

…..then one day things began to change and the natural way began to gain ground again against the Pursuit of Artificial. Like a quiet rebellion.  Like a quiet resistance. Nature regained its rightful place.  Nature refuses to follow this path.

In our rush to fill in the void created by catastrophic disaster, let’s remember to respect Nature’s lead in supporting those survivors left behind.   The new neighborhood is self-stabilizing.   It does not need the Pursuit of Artificial (and its profit-making schemes).


Why They Aren’t Evacuating

Every time a hurricane comes we see news stories of the people who refused to evacuate.  They fascinate us in their stubbornness.  They are blasted in the news stories for their disregard for public safety, a critical voice overlaid videos of helicopters hovering over flooded neighborhoods to make rooftop rescues. We ask- Why didn’t you just leave when the call for evacuation was made?  Seems so simple.

So why don’t people evacuate?  If you think it’s that simple for everyone to pack up and leave when asked to, think again.  Emergency Managers study the populations that are most strongly affected in disaster- and the greatest impacts are for the most vulnerable populations in a community.  This applies during mandatory evacuation and continues well after the the damage has been done. Vulnerable populations often can’t leave even when it is mandatory- for a number of reasons including:

  • They can’t afford it.  Don’t own a vehicle, can’t afford a hotel.
  • They’re stuck- old, sick or disabled.
  • Obligations to stay and offer support to someone in the first two groups.

A recent study corroborates this- ”in our study the average annual income of people who stayed was only $19,500, and only 54 percent of “stayers” had a car, compared to 100 percent of those who left.”  (NYT link)   People most often stick around because they are desperate- they don’t have the car to pack up, or the cash to spend for a hotel.

Another reason to stick around- those who feel they are called to do so to protect others. Although the media narrative is commonly that people stay because they are stubborn, stupid and reckless- these are not the reasons that people risk their lives. The authors of the study noted bove had this to say:

During survey interviews, survivors who stayed focused on interdependence, emphasizing themes of sticking together, religious faith and communal and family ties. In fact, over two-thirds of those who stayed explicitly discussed the importance of connections to others.

“We had a good community” one Katrina survivor in the New Orleans area said. “All the people here help one another.”  (..) These benefits may especially resonate with working-class Americans, who are more likely to think of themselves as part of a broader social network, with responsibilities to vulnerable neighbors; in contrast, members of the middle- and upper-class, who tend to evacuate, are more likely to think of themselves as independent families, free to come and go as they please. NYT (link)

There is a resurgence of civic pride as the clouds clear away and the floods recede- the way that communities self-organize and provide mutual aid during and after a crisis. We all catch glimpses of it after a disaster, in stories online and in the news.

So perhaps the Command and Control model for community crisis support doesn’t make any damn sense. You can’t force someone who is blind or wheelchair-bound to get up and evacuate.  And you can’t convince anyone that FEMA know the needs and vulnerable populations of a community better than the community itself.

The next hurricane that comes along, some people are going to be shelter in place, stuck in a horrible nightmare- and others are going to stick around to rescue them. Instead of blaming or forcing anybody, emergency managers would do a better job by supporting this phenomenon.  They ought to support vulnerable populations with no resources or transportation, and they should plan to support the heroes who stick around with a canoe and a pallet of water.

What is Looting?



source: WOAY website

TV stations around the country sounded the alarm for reports of looting rampaging a Family Dollar and a Dollar General store in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence.  In the wake of Hurricane Florence-

NEWS ALERT – Moments ago officers arrested five individuals who broke in and looted the Dollar General at 5th & Dawson Streets. Charges are pending and those details will be released as they become available. (link)

Said to be “capitalizing on chaos,” the looters made off with what, exactly?  How does anyone capitalize on anything by looting a dollar store?  By definition- it is the last place you would want to ‘loot.  How do you know this?  Because Dollar General only stocks basic supplies.  Dollar General doesn’t sell high-end electronics- or high-end anything.

By definition- a dollar store is the best place to get basic supplies without risking a felony theft charge in the process. In fact, maybe these residents looted dollar stores for this very reason- they didn’t want to risk the perception that they were looting. Nice try but it didn’t work.  It’s the elites who write same the script for more than 190 local TV stations across the country.  And that script for the last two days and said- these savages are looting and capitalizing on chaos.

But in reality- these aren’t criminals, these are people trying to get basic supplies such as food, water, diapers or batteries?  It’s not possible to do otherwise in one of these stores- even Media Elites ought to know this.  Should we really be arresting people for taking supplies from a Dollar General after a hurricane?

The reality of what’s going on here doesn’t fit into the televised narrative of the savage looters who “capitalize on chaos.”  Let’s challenge news stations to get the full story here.  Were these residents taking critical supplies because their communities was shattered, roads flooded?  My guess from a thousand miles away is yes, considering there isn’t anything else to take in that store.  Maybe there is looting going on, and the media can get obsessed with the next story of savagery and opportunism after a disaster.  And they can pretend that it’s the residents doing the exploiting (“looters”) and not the insurance companies and real estate developers who can buy up entire blocks for pennies on the dollar (“businessmen”).

This is an easy one- and makes the media bias pretty blatant here.



Disaster and Rebirth

Eunice takes us to the Gangway this week with some words on how we should view survivors of a catastrophic disaster.. and how we should act to support them..  -dc

A Thought from the Gangway

Disaster and Rebirth are stuck together like two sides of one coin. They are one thing.
Parent-Newborn Infant
It is imbalances of power-  neither good nor evil.  It exists. And it is dynamic. It’s our reactions, responses and relation, individually and together, to its existence that makes up the entirety of our lives. And it brings out our humanness.

Survivors of catastrophic disaster are like the lamb or newborn infant. They are in the weakest form of humanness. Do we blame a newborn infant for its weakness and inability to figure life out? Do we expect a newborn infant to understand it’s unfamiliar surroundings? That newborn infant only knows that it is cold for the first time. Hungry for the first time. Alone for the first time. And afraid, needing to be comforted with a blanket and eye contact. So it is with catastrophic disaster survivors. The human senses are all screwed up. Would we leave alone a nursery full of newborn infants with plenty enough formula-filled bottles in the nursery pantry? Or even would we leave them alone with a bottle full of formula in the foot of their individual cribs?

Sending emergency relief and medical supplies into a disaster without the immediate means of local distribution and communication within a broken distribution infrastructure is like leaving the bottles of formula in the foot of the cribs and expecting the newborn infants to make the connection and survive and thrive.

If you have ever been through the process of giving birth, those closest to the situation will remember those sleepless and fearful first days and nights which flowed into weeks and months without surfacing for air. You were in it thick. You were trying to figure out how to communicate with your infant. You cried a lot. But you were also amazed a lot at the little things you were witness to. The most blatantly pure form of imbalance of power and pure potential can be seen in a mother and infant learning how to make the connection in breastfeeding. It is nature’s supply and demand at its best. And it requires a support network of those closest to the situation. When it works poorly, it can mean failure to thrive for the infant and self blame for the mother and support system.

So it is with catastrophic disaster. If supply and demand doesn’t work well, it might mean failure to thrive for the survivors as individuals and as a neighborhood. Their potential may be stunted. And for the rest of us…we are left with a horrendous feeling of guilt and shame and division and blame.

So the moral of this narrative is: Let’s get it right. Even if it takes our lifetime.

And let’s forgive ourselves and others for not truly understanding what we are up against.



Welcome to the Gangway

More thoughts on  The Gangway..

After a flood or a tornado strikes a community, a host of organizations rush on in to help.  They do this in many different ways-and some ways are better than others.  At its best, support is responsive and empowering- and helps the community transform itself.  At its worst, support is stifling, confusing, and humiliating.  Some help displaces local initiative and is merely misplaced- resulting in a ‘second disaster’ of unneeded supplies or burdensome red tape.  We want to support the best.

We call it The Gangway. This post describes the model of mutual aid for communities and the temporary connecting support structure, or “Gangway,” that is created in the process.  We have developed this concept to support our organization’s role as a project development platform.

To better understand The Gangway, consider the term “Mutual aid-” which this group describes as a voluntary and decentralized approach to offering time, energy and resources. They contrast it with conventional, top-down recovery efforts .

Renegaid calls this place of observation, support and action “the Gangway.”  Facilitators, advocates, grassroots organizers, community leaders- these kinds of people all see the gangway for its open potential that rewards initiative.  It may be a physical space, a house or church servicing as ground zero for truckloads of supplies and bright-eyed volunteers.  These kinds of places are fantastically unique- brimming with potential- yet  exists with a completely different kind of potential than glory or profit.  It tends to be  a humbling and inspiring space for group problem-solving. Leah Ayer describes West Street Recovery which sprang into being when friends and strangers reacted to Hurricane Harvey drenching Southeast Houston.

Our effort rose purely out of reaction. (…) A sign is taped to the front door encouraging the 50+ people coming through our front door to empower themselves to make decisions. The kitchen runs from sun up to sundown. Our rooms fill and empty. The backyard becomes a dishwashing station. The hallways become sleeping quarters that are packed into corners by 7 every morning. (link)


Why do we need the Gangway?   Mutual Aid Disaster Relief puts it best-

“Survivors of disasters look for accomplices who can assist them in achieving this communal recovery without imposing the stigma of receiving assistance. (..) [We] respond in a flexible, responsive and effective manner by not assuming everybody’s needs are the same or that we know best what a community needs, but instead acts humbly, asking, listening, and responding.

To us, disaster survivors have a right to be part of a communal recovery. We recognize survivors’ rights to determine what their needs are and how best others could assist them and we utilize the knowledge, skills and networks gained from our background in social movement organizing to respond from below, with direct action and no bureaucracy or red tape. This mutual aid, solidarity-based, grassroots approach to disaster relief, in addition to meeting the self-determined needs of disaster survivors more effectively, has the added benefit of building bridges, serving to unite disparate elements of social justice and liberation movements and build power from below.” (link)


Why Isn’t the Gangway The Prevailing Model for Disaster Relief?

In fact, it is- in many parts of the world.  Historically, mutual aid is the model by which friendly communities have supported each other. But in modern America this cannot be taken for granted.  Most Americans hear two different stories when looking at communities in crisis: either 1) People are rising to the occasion to save lives, or 2) People are sinking to looting, violence and panic.  Both narratives can be true and we choose to believe that more often than not, people are strong rather than weak; more courageous than cowardly; generous instead of greedy;  builders more than destroyers.  With support from the gangway- they will accomplish more than they could imagine possible.

If anything, it is the top-down model of disaster charity that disempowers people, separates them from their basic necessities.  It is not the huddled masses of survivors we should fear- it is the inhuman bureaucracies that take away their dignity and treat them like animals.

If everything we saw in the media were true, then that treatment would be justified.  Stories of rape and looting filled the airwaves in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Corporate media was saturated with stories that alternatingly glorified certain communities for their brave and heroic responses, and humiliated other communities for their opportunism and violence.  The narratives fit a certain, cynical logic: “If you treat people like animals, they behave like animals.”  There’s a certain truthiness to self-fulfilling prophecies such as this.  They believe that “civilization is but a thin veneer” that is abandoned when hunger or desperation sets in.  From this perspective, it takes armed guards to feed hungry crowds; armed guards to patrol the shelters; armed guards to hand out tarps and bandaids.   It sounds ridiculous and yet it happens routinely after disasters.

These stories of looting, violence and panic on the TV- are overwhelmingly false.  We don’t believe the narrative that communities ‘deserve’ such humiliating aid.  We are not being idealistic when we assert that outside of the myths of the television set, an entirely consistent pattern of heroic and compassionate behavior sets in after a disaster.

The Gangway represents our hope and ideals taking flight- a part of the Restorative Narrative – that when you treat survivors with empathy, dignity and inspired support- you can make a real difference.  Let us not forget that our best friends are not the ones who always tell us what we want to hear.  They are there to support us in the long-haul.  As partners in mutual aid we are not in the business of short-term “feel-goodism.”  In the Gangway, we are in the business of empowering those in the worst of times and facilitating their basic emotional and material needs.

The Space We Occupy After a Disaster

Well-meaning outsiders crowd into a community to help after a disaster. Journalists, nurses, experts often with crucial roles to play- as well as stomachs to feed, beds to rest, showers to clean up, conversations to share at the local deli. The “space they occupy” in having these needs met will to some extent displace the space that community would critically depend upon after a disaster.

The same empathy that drove people to help may also guide the ways they take up space. Renegaid gives structure to empathy in “The Gangway. “

The Gangway is a physical space, at times- the temporary, self-provided trailers, food and supplies that outsiders will bring with them.  The thoughtful self-provisioning that has a net-positive impact on the logistical demands of the response and relief efforts.  In the Gangway, we bring in more resources than we take.  And we are thoughtful in providing to the Survivors the resources that they ask for, that in our professional capacities we can provide them.

Finally, The Gangway is an emotional space:  we understand that survivors experience a “falling together” that we as outsiders should not attempt to join.  It is not our crisis or our regeneration.  At the end of it, we will leave with the ghosts of the original residents- leaving behind an emotional saga that we only witness from the Gangway.

Why This Matters. Consider this account by one journalist of how she and her peers descended onto Sutherland Springs, TX after a church shooting there the day prior:

The media presence doubled the size of your grieving community, or so it seemed. You couldn’t park at the post office. It was jammed with news vans and satellite trucks, its lawn trampled by a half-dozen tents the big networks set up. You couldn’t get a quiet meal at the local cafe, where waitresses trying to get through their shifts were asked again and again to talk about the friends and family they had just lost.

It was miserably hot, even for Texas. But the gas station was out of sunscreen. We’d bought it all. It was an invasion. It was too much. (link)

The author contrasts her role as a professional observer and investigator with her basic empathy and humanity- arguing that there has to be a better way to chronicle disasters.  In other words, the space they occupied was too great.  One resident of the town had this to say about the journalists that week following the disaster:

They’re vultures, man. They don’t leave you alone. They just want their story.  It’s great that you want to hear our story but when you’re at a memorial you have no respect. You’re walking around with cameras shining in people’s faces. We’re not here for some festival.  We’re here because of something the likes of this town, Sutherland Springs, never thought they’d see. (link)


Well-meaning outsiders crowd into a community after a disaster. Sometimes their role is crucial- often their role is not what they thought it would be when they rushed in.  Sometimes their aid is undercut by the impact that they have on the community’s limited supply of lodging, restaurants, and short supply. The space they occupy can be in many ways anticipated and self-met.  This model of balancing the criteria of mutual aid with empathy; expertise with humanity; support and distance- it give substance to The Gangway. In its physical, logistical and emotional gangway- we experience and we document a narrative of the restorative potential of communities in crisis.

Living out and promoting this narrative of human potential at all times, and not just after a crisis, should be our goal.