Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Thoughts on Sandy: I – Coming Back, To What?

I’ve tried to keep a relatively low profile about Sandy – there’s still a lot of pain out there, and people don’t need us in the blogosphere adding to it.  But the power is almost all back on now, the debris is being cleared, schools are re-opening, and it’s time to think about rebuilding.
I want to explore three related questions – who’s coming back, how are they coming back, and how will they/should they rebuild.

First, who’s coming back?  I’d like to say “everyone,” but I’m not so sure.  One of the silent stories from the tornadoes that hit northern Alabama (and before that, Greensburg, KS, for sure) is the number of those who didn’t come back.  Greensburg lost half its population, none of whom have returned.  In Alabama, the demographics of many towns changed drastically.  There was a mini-migration of the elderly who did not want to take out a new mortgage to rebuild.  Many of the towns they left became much “younger” overnight.  The seniors moved into apartments, or adult communities, in areas that have amenities more in keeping with their current needs.

But from the stories I’ve heard, even those who didn’t return to their communities still felt the tug – Andy Felts would call it the stickiness – of wanting to be a part of that community once again.  We shouldn’t underestimate the power of memories in forming and binding a community together.
When you hear the voices of those who left the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and didn’t return, you can still viscerally feel the emotional pull that they feel to go back, even to all of its vulnerability and poverty. It is the place where they remember the comfort of their mother’s arms. It is the place where they played their first game of stickball or hopscotch. It is the place where they met their first steady. It is the place that memory tells them is home.

It is easy for planners who live elsewhere to simply say “That area is too dangerous. We shouldn’t rebuild there.” And in the past, I’ve said the same thing. But I think the wiser course is for all of us to say to those who want to rebuild in dangerous places, “If you feel you must, do so. But you must do so better.” And then we must work with them to help them build back better.

What’s the price if we don’t? Those who have these emotional ties may not return, leaving blighted and stunted neighborhoods behind.  Both those who return and those who don’t will become more isolated, more fragile and more vulnerable. The cost of that vulnerability is likely higher than the cost of building back better.

Again, New Orleans provides evidence of this, and offers a signpost toward a better future. Immediately after Katrina, the lower Broadmoor neighborhood was one that city government didn’t intend to help rebuild. But the more affluent northern part of the neighborhood and the less affluent (and more prone to flood) southern portion banded together to stop the city’s plans in their tracks. They used money from wherever they could get it to build back better. Today, there is a wealth of new buildings in the neighborhood that will survive future storms better, but that will also strengthen the community’s sense of itself on a daily basis. Kids there will have memories even better than those their parents have that will bind them even more strongly to their community.  If we compare Broadmoor to today’s Ninth Ward with few of its houses occupied and its sad panorama of boarded up windows, we know that one will survive the next storm and the other won’t.

The signpost to the future? Broadmoor largely did it on its own. Eventually there was some planning assistance from the city, and funds from a variety of places, but the impetus and the vision and the daily dog work to build back better came from within the people of Broadmoor, working together.  This is the essence of community resilience.
At the national level, FEMA funding is heavily tilted toward reinforcing the Tyranny of the Old Normal. While this is slowly turning around, we need to speed the process. If we can do that, and find creative ways to help even the poorest communities to find their “god within” – the enthusiastic urge and ability to build back better, we will build stronger communities and have the basis for a more resilient nation.