Natural disasters are familiar aspects of our geographical, social, and cultural landscape — but that doesn’t mean that they are any less impactful for their prevalence. In fact, their familiarity makes them more so. Our news feeds are filled with stories and images of scenes of destruction, from volcanoes in the Philippines to widespread fires in Australia. As we move closer to the irreversible effects of climate change, we can expect to witness more, and worse.
However, time and again we see examples of how communities effectively recover from the nightmares of disaster by coming together and facing challenges together. For all the bad news we are subject to, we are often at our best when faced with adversity — whether it’s locals sharing what little they have with those who have less, to firefighters flying halfway across the planet to join rescue efforts, to organizations like HOAs putting plans in place that lessen the impact to their community when disaster does strike. To paraphrase a quote by Fred Rogers; when we see scenes of tragedy, we must look for the helpers. Wherever possible, we should also be those helpers.
As natural disasters threaten to become more frequent for many of us, it’s time to look at some areas in which communities can band together for the greater good. What organizational approaches should we be taking, and what tools can we use? To recover from the worst, we need to be at our best.
Natural disasters have the potential to affect large numbers of people in any given community. This means that beyond those physically injured, there are likely members of our local society who are particularly vulnerable and unable to take care of themselves in the aftermath of a disaster. Following the immediate emergency provisions, and confirmation of personal and family safety, the community needs to come together to identify its most vulnerable members for assistance as a priority.
This can be particularly challenging — and important — when it comes to disasters that have occurred in rural areas. There may be elderly, disabled, or otherwise vulnerable people who are relatively isolated and do not have easy access to assistance. This can also be why it is important for community members to make efforts to connect with one another long before an emergency occurs. The greater the understanding we all have of those in our midst who may be considered at-risk groups, the more effectively we can mount a recovery.
It’s also worth utilizing the expertise of those community members who have a deeper professional understanding of working with the vulnerable and those going through periods of crisis. Social workers have a key role to play in helping communities deal with the consequences of natural disasters. They can provide guidance on effective strategies to assist the vulnerable, have access to information on resources for helping children recover from traumatic experiences, and provide support for the mentally ill. Wherever possible, social workers should be included in emergency planning prior to disaster hitting, in order to formulate the most effective disaster response.
When we see news reports following a disaster, the first statistics we tend to find are those of the dead or injured. Unfortunately, death is a reality of many natural emergencies. Aside from the tragedy of the deaths themselves, communities may find that in the aftermath there is a need to arrange the safe, respectful handling of the deceased.
For many of us, funerals are an important part of the grieving process, an opportunity to process death in an organized way. What doesn’t help is the fact that our funerary services are still somewhat antiquated, mired in a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy and expensive ancillary products. Following a natural disaster, particularly if there are a number of fatalities, the organization of funerals can be a huge logistical undertaking.
Communities can, therefore, come together to help take on the efficient arrangement of funerals. It may be the case that a joint memorial service can be arranged in order to spread the organizational and financial burden. Specific members of the community may be best placed to understand the cultural and religious needs of their neighbors and work with local leaders to make accommodations wherever possible. During natural disasters wherein some bodies are not able to be recovered, it may be necessary to make appropriate arrangements for alternative memorial options to allow family members and friends to mourn with the rest of the community.
Once many of the immediate issues have been taken care of, and people are safe, the often daunting task of rebuilding becomes the source of focus. For many individuals, coming face to face with the remains of their home is an understandably upsetting and overwhelming prospect. Therefore it is important that communities come together to lighten the load in any way they can.
It may be the case that members of the community have experience in building and contracting. There may be a need for expertise in demolition, and removing the unsalvageable remains of the building or other collapsed structures. It can be useful for community leaders to engage in emergency preparedness meetings in which they establish which locals have expertise in areas of construction and are able to provide services and even lead less experienced members in assisting physical rebuilding.
Rebuilding isn’t just limited to the physical aspects of putting homes back together, however. There are also likely to be essential administrative elements that those without organizational skills may find difficult to navigate. Business owners may have more complex issues, including the effects of looting, and dealing with suppliers. In this case, community members who have experience in law, management, or even clerical aspects can be utilized in engaging with insurance providers to obtain the funds needed to support rebuilding efforts and liaising with national emergency relief organizations.
Natural disasters can be devastating enough, without throwing in the possibility of dealing with the aftermath alone. Communities are often comprised of people with various useful experiences and expertise in a range of tasks. By banding together after a disaster, we have the potential to make a more effective and swift recovery and are able to prepare better for the worst.