by Rachel Hogan Carr
To those who endured and watched as the storm passed along the East Coast of the United States, the story of Hurricane Sandy is one of heartache and devastation. To those who follow weather, the storm is a phenomenal meteorological case study.
Sandy, dubbed a “Super Storm” for its incredible damage and its meteorological characteristics, is destined to be legendary in America’s weather history—one of those stories of extreme weather that, once passed, captures imaginations of future generations who can barely grasp the extent of the event.
How we tell this story, then, is what will determine Sandy’s legacy.
“It is reasonable, and even necessary, that flooded communities gather their energy to start again after a major disaster. But ‘getting back to normal’ is not the goal.”
As with other major storms in American history, including the legendary flood of 1955 here in the Lehigh Valley, the impacts on those who survived are lasting. But, historically, the ultimate impact on the communities where extreme flooding has occurred is variable. While a few tighten floodplain ordinances and come together to strengthen emergency communications, many determine to pick up, rebuild, and “get back to normal”. As part of an effort to move quickly past the suffering, the memories of the tremendous flooding are moved into the background of the community narrative. The story of the flood, on the rare instances it is told, is portrayed as a historical legend, a once-in-a-lifetime “fluke”.
The trouble is that this story misleads. A community with a floodplain should expect it to flood, again and again. Floodplains are, after all, created by floods to hold flood water. It is reasonable, and even necessary, that flooded communities—including those along the Jersey shore and those here in the Lehigh Valley—gather their energy to start again after a major disaster. But “getting back to normal” is not the goal. Getting back to “normal” simply means that vulnerability remains high, citizens remain uninformed about their risks and the ways to prepare, and municipalities will be challenged to find funds to rebuild after the next, inevitable flood event. What is needed is a new understanding by communities about the reality of their risk, and the strategies available to prepare and reduce their vulnerability. In short, communities need to learn the language of resilience and start telling that as their story.
It is understood in the hazards education community that there is a window of time after a major disaster, in which people are willing to learn more about their risk and change their behavior to prepare against future losses. Then, the window quickly closes. The challenge for those interested in building community resiliency to extreme weather and natural hazards is to help communities continue to talk about, learn about, and plan for the inevitable next disaster, even as the urgency of the last event fades.
The science about how people understand their risk is complicated, but a few things are clear: People tend to underestimate their own risk of loss in natural disasters, and delay preparations. But there is also evidence that individuals are more likely to prepare if and when they are given clear information about what to do to get ready. Repeated messages about how “at risk” an individual works less well to motivate preparedness than does a clear, visual explanation about how to prepare. People also need to understand how preparing will reduce their losses. Most critically, social science research indicates that people are motivated to prepare by seeing others prepare—friends, neighbors, and family included.
It makes sense: our social networks are critical in determining our values and how we decide to behave. Preparing for disasters is no different. Motivating communities to prepare together is an effective approach the Lehigh Valley should consider. Municipalities, environmental advisory councils, watershed groups, emergency management organizations, fire departments, and motivated individuals can make big strides by changing a community’s narrative about their flood risk from one of “fluke” to one of preparedness, planning, and resiliency for the future.
Flooding will always be a part of the story here in the Lehigh Valley. Sharing that understanding with friends and neighbors, and sharing information about how to plan and prepare as individuals and as a community can make a huge difference in how flood events affect us in the future. It will take years to restore the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, but the chance is still ahead of us to turn its legacy into one of learning and resilience.
Rachel Hogan Carr is the director of the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, which uses science, art, and dialogue programs to help communities address local environmental risks, including flooding.
(Published in the 2013 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)