A little less than two years ago, Judith Rodriguez was one of the roughly 50,000 people living in the mountain town of Cayey, Puerto Rico when it was devastated by Hurricane Maria. The deadliest storm to hit the United States, or its territories, since 1900 left a lasting impact on the island. With the majority of the island left without power for months on end, most people, including Rodriguez, were unable to do basic things, such as cooking.
In response to this untenable situation, the Centros de Apoyo Mutuo (CAMs), or mutual aid centers, began springing up all over the island. When Rodriguez learned about a community kitchen, she wanted to contribute. She donated her dishes because they wouldn’t be of any use until the power was back on anyways. She loved the idea of people cooperating with each other, calling it a beautiful project.
The CAMs began as community kitchens with volunteer cooks eventually taking on a whole new life, evolving into full-fledged community centers that share electricity, provide weekly acupuncture clinics to reduce the symptoms of trauma, and offer classes. Acting as an excellent example of what community-led disaster response and recovery can look like, the CAMs focus on the needs and abilities of the people and provide an avenue for the general public to participate in mutual aid, not charity.
The mutual aid centers in Puerto Rico are just one of innumerable examples from around the world of communities that create systems change after disasters. This kind of collective heroism seems to naturally emerge every time a disaster occurs across cultures, be it an environmental, social, or political disaster. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect upon this phenomenon because it could be an important avenue for accelerating positive change if acted on with more intention.
More natural disasters
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since 1980 there has been an average of six disasters ($1 billion or more worth of damages) annually in the United States. Quite shockingly this number has nearly tripled in the past four years. In 2017 alone, 16 climate-fueled disasters left the country with a death toll in the thousands and $300 billion in damages.
This increase in destruction is far from unique to the United States. Elsewhere around the world, disasters are taking place at an increased rate and intensity: monsoon flooding in Bangladesh; landslides in Colombia, Sierra Leone, and Japan; and cyclones in Mozambique to name just a few.
When disasters occur, the majority of news coverage teeters on the edge of “disaster porn,” focusing on the sheer mass of destruction and disruption to the affected regions. The reporting routinely underplays the local communities’ responses to the hardships they face and the ways they come together to support each other during times of disruption. News stories often lack a larger context for the pre-existing social disasters that were present in those communities.
Overwhelming evidence shows that, more often than not, it’s the people living in the affected communities who, despite all the obstacles, rise to the occasion to save lives, reduce suffering, and form a community of care – experiencing what the author Rebecca Solnit calls “disaster collectivism.”
The reimagining of what’s possible doesn’t stop after the initial recovery is over, instead, it continues as communities regenerate; often increasing their equity, resilience, and capacity for joy.
The role of sharing
Personal and collective transformation often occurs as a result of shared experience from tragic events. The comradery among survivors is almost impossible to replicate under ordinary circumstances. But we can learn from the response to these events and apply these lessons to the way we structure our societies.
With this in mind, Shareable is launching our next series to explore urban resilience initiatives and community-led disaster response and recovery efforts from around the world and in Northern California, where we are based. Together we’ll ask some often uncomfortable questions about how to:
- Take care of each other’s needs in the aftermath of disasters through solidarity and mutual aid.
- Balance the need to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible with the need to rebuild in a more just and equitable way and create greater resilience and sustainability for all.
- Push back against “disaster capitalists” (those who seek to profit through rebuilding/recovery efforts).
- Cultivate increased resilience in our communities before disasters occur.
- Design our response and recovery practices so that impacted communities are able to move forward with a renewed sense of community cohesion and a sense of place.
Over the course of this series, we’ll share our newest guide to creating a “resilience hub” in your community (and offer support to start projects big and small). We’ll examine one of the leading methods for healing acute and chronic traumas. We will revisit the experiences of the undocumented community in the aftermath of the Tubbs Fire. And we’ll learn about initiatives taking a community wealth building approach to creating resilience through the development of green infrastructure.
Next month, we’ll release the second season of our podcast series, The Response, which will re-examine under-reported stories:
- The 2017 earthquake in Mexico City,
- Japan’s 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima Prefecture,
- The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, which was the most deadly domestic blaze the city had experienced since World War II.
Finally, on July 24, we premiered our first documentary film, “The Response: How Puerto Ricans Are Restoring Power to the People,” featuring on-the-ground efforts in communities across the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, on a big outdoor screen across from Oakland City Hall.
Couldn’t make it on the 24th? Stay tuned as we’ll be releasing the film for groups to host community screenings starting in August. If you would like to show the film in your community, please fill out this form and stay tuned for more information in our newsletter.
As we face the reality of an increasingly chaotic climate, we must examine the situation through a social, economic, and political lens. Without intervention, the contours of a disaster’s impact and recovery will inevitably exacerbate existing inequalities.
Maybe the best thing we can do in the wake of a disaster is to cultivate closely knit, organized, and empowered communities that are more resilient during catastrophes and better able to demand the resources they need to not only survive those acute disasters, but to rebuild on a more just and sustainable basis.
“We’re a community,” says Judith Rodriguez. “Whether we want it or not, human beings are a community. If we’re in China, in Puerto Rico, in Japan, wherever, we’re a community. We have to help each other… If this boat sinks, we all sink. I don’t sink alone, we all sink”.
This article is part of our series on disaster collectivism. Download our free series ebook here.