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Man Vs. Nature: Vignettes
A case against resiliency
As most of you surely know, Vermont has been inundated with extreme weather and my locale (Montpelier and Barre) was severely flooded and both communities are digging themselves out, and will be for some time to come. By Grace, Karma, or Luck, our home was barely touched by the torrents and both workplaces of mine and my partner were also spared from the ruin that is our daily landscape these days. I have not been able to put it into words.
Two weeks ago, the rains started. The sky was an painter’s palette, heavy on blues, grays, and whites. The emergency warnings had been coming in over the weekend via email and social media. We had, it seemed, plenty of time to prepare. By Sunday evening, I sent an email to alert all basement users. On Monday morning, I texted my staff to be careful on the roads if they chose to come to the office. One person’s road was already completely washed out by 8:30 AM. His family would be stranded for a few days.
By 2 PM on Monday, I had closed all the basement windows and checked in with the arts camp staff. Parents were already picking up their children ahead of the storm. I planned to close the office early and work the rest of the day from home. In the late afternoon, I realized that I would likely be stranded in Barre if predictions were accurate. I found a volunteer who lived up the hill from the office to be our on-the-ground point person. She lifted some paintings off the basement floor, sandbagged a window, and would assess the damage on Tuesday morning. I monitored the building remotely via security cameras.
This is not a disaster story. I refuse to take part in disaster porn, the exploitation of misery and grief. There would be no good in this. As someone with keen interest in news publishing, I understand the need to record and to tell a story. Stories are essential to human nature. But so is dignity.
And because I’m tired, a shortlist of indignities witnessed during this rapid disaster response:
English-first assistance. The languages spoken in Montpelier range from Nepali, Thai, Vietnamese, Spanish, Tagalog, among others. While translated guidance and translation services can be procured, they were slow to arrive.
Business-first priorities. While the most visible occupants of our downtowns are the businesses, they are mixed-use and the floods (especially in Barre) did damage housing within and adjacent to the downtowns. Montpelier rallied hard with volunteers and resources for the affected businesses immediately. GoFundMes and other fundraising efforts that are most visible are to support the business community.
Increased housing needs. Vermont was already experiencing a housing crisis before this flood. Climate and urban refugees drove up the housing market during COVID. The state enacted mass evictions for folks in temporary housing. Now with the loss of homes, more people than expected are unhoused. Brenda Seigel does a good job explaining how homelessness is not a moral issue, but a societal, structural one.
Able-bodied language. #VermontStrong #MontpelierStrong #BarreStrong 💪Let’s face it, Nature took Her liberties with us. And it hurt the most vulnerable differently than the better resourced. All communities nonetheless are severely damaged. In our culture of hero worship, it's’ tempting to view toughness and strength as essential survival traits. There are those of us who are not physically or mentally strong. Or spiritually healthy. We need food, validation, and community too.
Good old fashioned racism. IYKYK
I walked the long way around downtown Montpelier today, looking to accomplish several errands. Silt was still everywhere, entrenched in sidewalk cracks, dusting leaves and needles of hedgerows, kicking up in puffs as cars slowly drove by. It’s a dull gray soft sand, like what’s underfoot at the boardwalk at Hampton Beach. The City started trash removal last week, and yet the piles of soaked drywall, sludge-coated stalls and display cases were taller than I am. There’s a minerality to the air that I’d rather not breathe but the mask I brought tore as I tried it on. The streets of the core downtown were barricaded against traffic. I moseyed through the maze of fencing and sawhorses. Someone asked me what I was doing downtown.
“I work over there,” I said pointing in the general direction of my building. We quickly traded flood stories and caught up. I did slightly feel out of place, as if I floated through a dream-version of Montpelier and not the one I’d managed through the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. Large vehicles crept through, digging, tearing, compiling, making a rumbling mix of crushed metal, broken glass, and torn asphalt. Trucks with logos like: Catastrophe ReHab, Complete Debris Removal, and SurVac dotted the streets, their workers in bright protective gear.
Both branches of TD Bank were closed, their doors snaked with various hoses. I wanted to pay my cell phone bill in cash, but that shop was also closed. I walked along the bike path on the way to another bank. The water still gushed alongside the path. It was the color and consistency of chocolate milk. This was a smaller version of what I imagined the Mekong River looked like, the waters my family crossed into Thailand when I was a baby.
The bike path leads to my local VSECU branch. Piles of dried mud were set by some sidewalk plow intermittently along the path. The chokecherries along the path were bright red and bulbous. If not for the dangers of toxic floodwaters having touched them, I would have picked and tasted a few along my walk. I figured my forage adventures this year will be truncated. I was able to make an appointment at the desk.
I’m grateful that the City took on this bike path project, as I was able to use it without being in the way of the cleanup. It’s a community project that took over 20 years from ideation to implementation. A lot happens in 20 years and many projects fall by the way for lack of leadership. But this is an example of rebuilding with a design for the future. The water did encroach there too, but flooding had been part of the design.
Resilience gets tossed about as a desirable character trait, like strength or grit. The ability to recover easily after stress, change, or misfortune. Resiliency is the ease and quickness of bouncing back. Like a rubber band. Like water. But even rubber bands have a shelf life and eventually corrode. Two weeks after a devastating flood, our rivers are still gross with bacteria and chemicals. They are not yet safe for swimming.
Community resilience is generally defined as the ability of a community to support itself, especially during times of crisis. This often comes in the form of mutual aid groups, strong and agile systems, volunteers, social networks, a phone tree.
This idea of a resilient community is rooted in the present, a conservatism of what is. The idea is to bounce back to the way things were before the disruption. Vermont, which prides itself with maintaining the razor’s edge of progressive values and deep-seated Yankeedom, is the poster child of “resilient community”. With each new development or change, we stretch just to breaking, then snap back to sense. Snark intended.
I think I resist “resilient” because it doesn’t allow for permanent change. We need to make drastic, dramatic changes if we are to eliminate the indignities listed above. There’s no good supplement: enduring, abiding, lasting… none of these capture the kind of community I think we can make for ourselves, for each other.
And because this is long, here’s a shortlist of a few actions anyone can do to ensure that future, if not for ourselves, then for others:
Learn another language. Take online ASL classes. Learn some phrases in the language of the refugees arriving in your community. There are a lot of online resources.
Join a neighborhood group. Host a potluck, be part of the neighborhood watch, volunteer to be block captain.
Utilize your privilege. Whether you have money, time, specialized knowledge, a large network, utilize your influence and position in the community to enact policy and systems change.
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