"Presbyterians? . . . They stay until it's done!"
-- Overheard at Long Term Recovery Group Meeting
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After the Shine
Reflections of a So-Called "Hurricane Hero"
in the Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

By Christina Drake, Disaster Recovery Coordinator
Presbytery of South Louisiana
September 3, 2017

Only three short weeks ago ​I was interviewed by The Weather Channel as a "Hurricane Hero" based upon my work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  I'd be lying if I said I haven't seriously questioned that title over the past week as I struggled with how to respond to the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.  My mind kept returning to that live interview and one question:    

“So are you ready to pick and move somewhere else if there’s another big storm?” 

My answer was automatic and truthful . . . “I tend to stay and see it through.”  Since Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in Texas, that conversation has played over and over in my mind, and I wonder how many will do the same . . . stay and see it through . . . long after the shine has worn off.
            For someone like me, this is a difficult, emotional and reflective time.   Over the past 10 years, I have responded to a number of floods:  the 2007 Findlay, Ohio flood in the shelter where I vividly remember the voice of a mother screaming over the phone, “I can’t believe you can’t tell me if my son is alive or dead!”; rebuilding homes devastated by Katrina in New Orleans for families that waited literally a decade to return; 2008 - checking on homes we’d already rebuilt when Hurricane Gustav blew through only a year into my New Orleans service; Hurricane Isaac in 2012 where I rode out the storm at the Emergency Ops Center and helped to set up a medical shelter; and the massive flooding of 22 Louisiana parishes in August of last year where I assisted at a shelter for a week following the flood.  I’ve learned that I thrive in these settings, but I’ve also learned that it’s not about me and what I want to do.  It’s about identifying the greatest need . . . and doing my best to fill it. 

Most times, that greatest need is present long after the shine wears off and everyone else has gone home.
            The 2004 Tsunami.  Hurricane Katrina.  The 2010 Haiti Earthquake.  And now, Hurricane Harvey.  These are just some of the shiny objects that we are fascinated with, that we respond to on a primal human level with an outpouring of money and donations and yes, Love for our suffering brothers and sisters.  But we are a nation with a limited attention span, so what happens when something shinier comes along . . . or when the lights and cameras don’t ever shine on 150,000 families who lost everything in a little ol’ unnamed rainstorm?  More importantly, what happens after the shine is gone . . . when the waters have receded, the reporters are gone, the shelters are empty, most of the homes have been gutted and politics once again claims every headline?

What happens then?
            After 10 years in New Orleans and one year in 22 parishes affected by the August 2016 Louisiana Flood, I can tell you what happens next.  Carried by the Love of strangers, these families face their recovery with Hope.  They have seen that people care as droves of volunteers show up to rescue, feed and clothe them and then to help gut and clean out their homes.  But then the tide turns, volunteer numbers recede almost as quickly as the waters that brought them in, families are left with a skeleton of what used to be their home, and the Hope that these strangers brought is replaced with Hopelessness.  In the months and years to follow, these families will continue to live in gutted homes as they realize that the cavalry has left.  When that happens, that bright light of Hope that existed early on becomes the salt that rubs the wound.  “I don’t know what to do!” we will hear. 

“I wish they’d have just burned it to the ground!”
. . . another will say, for it would have been easier to accept early on that they would never come home rather than fall from the heights of false Hope.
            People are by nature, reactionary.  As the images of widespread disaster and human suffering flash before our eyes on tv’s, tablets and smart phones, our human nature demands a response.  It seems almost heartless to sit in the comfort of our homes and do nothing.  For some that means grabbing every friend who has a boat and organizing rescue teams in the height of the storm.  For others, it’s writing a check or clicking a donate button.  And yes, there are those who frantically clean out their closets of unwanted clothing and a bizarre blend of other items and dump them on the doorstep of the nearest shelter in order to get their disaster fix.  I would argue that most, if not all, are well-meaning attempts to help at a time when certainly help is desperately needed.  This response is a good thing.  It saves lives and restores our faith in humanity, but it is only a bandaid on the gaping wound of disaster, and much more will be required.
            For those of us who stay for the long-term, new disasters create a dichotomy of emotions.  Here in Louisiana, we have been literally begging for volunteers to come for over a year to help rebuild over 100,000 homes after last year’s unnamed and un-touted August flood, and few have heeded the call because that rainstorm didn’t shine very bright and was quickly forgotten.  Our instinct is to jump in and help when the next disaster appears, because we know firsthand the suffering that is to come.  Yet at the same time, there is the sinking knowledge that each subsequent disaster means that the many families we are trying to help will be overlooked and will never be able to return home.  It’s uncomfortable, this inevitable “competition” for resources.  We don’t want people not to help those in immediate need, but we look into the tired and weary faces of those who have been waiting for over a year to come home, who breathe in dangerous mold every day and care for disabled family members in homes with exposed studs and jerry-rigged sinks . . . and we know that someone has to stay. . . 

 Someone has to see it through.
            During my 10 years in New Orleans, I was often asked why people should still continue to help rebuild there in the face of new disasters.  My answer has always been, “How long do you think people should wait to come home? . . . 2 years? . . . 5 years? . . . a decade?”  My inner struggle is triggered with each disaster, because I know that we will never finish.  I worry that we are leaving every disaster-affected community in shambles, never finishing what we start and in the end, are left with a growing population across our country that is broken, homeless and abandoned.  It is this knowledge, not apathy, that keeps me rooted where I am. 
            So what is the solution?  I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I wonder what would happen if everyone who stepped up in the first dramatic moments of disaster continued to step up in the years to come?  What if everyone who was unable to respond immediately took a week or two out of their year to help rebuild? What if every church in America sent a team of volunteers to help rebuild a devastated community?  What if college and high school graduates, retirees and empty-nesters like myself committed to a year or 2 of AmeriCorps service with a rebuild organization?  What if unaffected members of devastated communities volunteered one day a week to help their neighbors rebuild?  What if everybody committed to doing something . . . not just today, but until it’s done?  Trust me, there is plenty of work to go around!
            As Hurricane Irma threatens from afar, I am reminded that this emotional conundrum will continue and that resources will become exponentially more scarce.  But I will continue to fight the urge to follow the next shiny object and will continue to encourage my fellow Americans to help wherever and whenever they can . . . before, during and most of all . . .

long after the shine.