When disaster inevitably strikes, what is your response? Wait for someone to fix it, dwell on the unfairness of it all? What do you need to move ahead?
This week Jean interviews Angela Blanchard, an expert in disaster recovery, having cut her teeth on the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She thrives in chaotic situations that would daunt most of us. How did she learn this and what wisdom can she provide us? Below are highlights. For the full interview, read the transcript or watch the video.
Most of us have experienced or witnessed some disruption in our lives. Angela Blanchard is here to talk about how communities pull together after a natural disaster. Angela is a senior fellow at Brown University and a nationally recognized expert on disaster recovery.
Angela, you have a motto, "Born for storms." What's the background?
Some of us actually function really well when everything's spinning out of control. I'm really engaged and fired up and focused when other people are scared to death. When I would think, "Oh, this is going to be an incredible opportunity,” that sensation for me quite often wasn't shared by everyone.
So, “born for storms” means able to function really well in chaos. And that knowledge and wisdom about how we go on after the unthinkable is what I'm most deeply interested in.
What goes in on your mind?
In our society, we're very focused on first responders and the emergency phase and the dramatic phase in the run forth. But that's the first minutes, the first hours, perhaps the first days. There's a whole story that follows.
I have often suspected that the reason the emergency phase gets so much attention is you see far more men active in that stage. And then if you look at the remaking of lives and the rebuilding of communities and attending and mending and healing work, that it tends to be more women doing that work.
Why did this become a professional focus?
Katrina was the awakening for me, having grown up on the Gulf Coast and being Cajun, meaning all my relatives live right in the path of hurricanes. So, you know, we grew up with hurricanes coming, make a big pot of gumbo.
We speak of Katrina as the hurricane. But really it was the failure of the levees. We would be struggling to remember the name of the hurricane that happened in 2005 had the levees not failed. Whatever is destroyed also exposes how things were built, now we see the structure. We saw a history of disinvestment in neighborhoods and communities, we saw a failure on the part of the country to value the Gulf Coast. Then rather than scurry quickly to recreate what we had, it's a chance to rethink and do something different.
Apply that to post George Floyd, and what many organizations started saying, "How can we restructure what we're doing inside our organizations to be more diverse, to be more inclusive, to be more equitable?"
One of the bankers I was working with was saying, "What should we be doing?" I said, we need you to bank people differently.
Everything from credit scores, who gets hired, who gets a loan, who gets an investment, who even gets the information about a deal that could be beneficial, all of that. That's your work, redo that. Because if that's not representative of the world around you, then your system is flawed.
How did Katrina impact you personally, so that you chose disasters as a focus?
The response was a catastrophic failure. The levees failed catastrophically which were a reflection of disinvestment and a failure to understand the value of Gulf Coast assets and people. But the response was another order of magnitude, terrifying to watch because it was so completely lacking in understanding, and in compassion, and in empathy.
My shorthand version: there's a levee in every community, a crack in every system.
So, this is why I began to turn my attention entirely to how we respond to those sets of conditions and failures of systems.
We exist as vulnerable creatures on this shared journey. Most of us have made some sort of unconscious bargain with the universe. I'll do all these things: I'll have insurance, I'll pay my bills, I'll work hard, I'll be close to family, I'll do a good job, and all will go well. But there is no bargain. That's not the deal.
Then when things don't go well, we wonder what happened. This is not supposed to happen. You're saying the opposite, you can follow the rules and disaster in some form will surely come anyway.
The same way disasters are revelatory about systems, they also reveal to us who we are, what we believe about the way the world works. And then we have a chance to actually reconsider all of the things that we've based our lives upon. Most people aren't excited about that prospect.
I hear so many people say that's not fair. And I'm thinking, how did fairness enter the equation?
We have a chance to understand ourselves better.
One of the things about upheaval is you see people expressing some kind of outrage or astonishment that this could happen in their lives. But then there are large numbers of people, people of color, people in other countries for which safety, security, predictability, systems working for them has never been a part of their story. So, they experienced these upheavals in very different ways.
I have to confess to being sometimes quite impatient. How could you not know? We told you and we told you and we told you. But with some grace, we can then embrace the awakening, and say, now you're on the team.
Say all the disaster places you've been to, because I want to show your "Wisdom from Disasters."
I went to Australia. I went to Germany to work with German officials, as they were resettling Syrians. I went to Lebanon to one of the oldest refugee camps in Lebanon to look at the way stateless people in a confined space organized community in response.
I went to Amman to look at the largest refugee reception center there, as they were welcoming about 400,000 Syrians, and then to a refugee camp in the desert in Jordan, to see the way they were responding, a city of 80,000 people in the desert, and then back to Australia, as they were responding to a catastrophic flooding in Brisbane. Also in Ferguson, after the Michael Brown shooting.
"Wisdom from Disasters": pick any one, tell us the number first.
Well, number one is, no one is coming. That is the idea that if situations become completely overwhelming and way beyond our capacity, that someone bigger, better, stronger, faster will show up and resolve it for us, or at least bring some meaningful help to the arena.
And it was clear in New Orleans, every system we had created that was designed to respond catastrophically failed to respond. People in the Astrodome would tell us that they actually imagined that something catastrophic had happened to the whole country.
So, it's incredibly important, the people that tend to recover best are those that start soonest. We all know that if you start mucking out quickly, you might save your house. Whereas if you're not able to or you're forced to wait, then there's a good chance you'll lose your house.
If you wait, and no one comes, you're now coping with betrayal.
I have a very painful chapter on betrayal. It was hard to write it because it hurts so much.
When Ike hit Houston, it was rough. And there were a number of leaders of various nonprofits and some for-profits, who said we don't do disasters.
This is my argument with climate change. I don't care who caused it, the world has changed. And it continues and it's accelerating, and the evidence is here and we must respond.
I insist that people have a larger sense of responsibility than the narrow definitions that go with positions and titles: this is your city, this is your community. We are in this together, and we own it. And I think that stance really will make the difference between a successful response and an inadequate one.
Revisit the principles that will guide your decision making as you move through this unprecedented period. Being in touch with those principles and having them as a reference will help you figure out how you're going to move forward.
Leaders practice “when I know it, you know it”; people can handle the truth. We unravel when we are forced to play detective in a disaster. If you want people to follow you, you don't have to be certain, but you must be transparent.
There's an old model of leadership that says, "Let me protect you from these terrible circumstances.” Good leaders say “this is the full picture. Here's the part we're going to act on, here's where I think you can uniquely contribute, I need your help here.”
Tell the people what to expect. Give people as much certainty as you can give them.
I want to say it's friendships like ours that actually sustain people. And as Elizabeth Dole famously said, "The time to make a good close friend is not 3:00 AM with a hurricane in the Gulf."
Tell people how they can find you.
I'm so findable, Facebook, Twitter, email, website Angelablanchard.com, or email me at Cajunangela@gmail.com.
The depth of Angela's knowledge always blows me away.
First, disaster is an opportunity for something new. I see so many people stuck in regrets because this or that bad thing happened. Yet, as Angela is saying, when a disaster happens, that's an opportunity to think, how do we want to rebuild, not replace the old but rebuild with something that serves us better.
Second, no one is coming. I was struck when she said that the people who had waited for someone to come were those who had the hardest time with their grief. Angela is saying get started with what can be done.
Third, I loved her comments about leaders and how they handle truth-telling after a disaster. It's maddening to believe someone is withholding information. Better to say what you know, tell people what they can do now, and keep the information flowing as new information unfolds.
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Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Taubman Center Affiliate - Brown University
Angela is a globally recognized expert practitioner in community development. From long-term disaster recovery to effective integration of immigrants and refugees, Blanchard’s evolutionary strategies have helped to successfully revitalize neighborhoods while providing a powerful roadmap for cities around the world.
She is the brainpower behind Appreciative Community Building A practical story of transformative community change, published by BakerRipley Community Developers, and authored most of it.
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