Divisive Devices

From Ruston Daily Leader, October 21, 2010

You may have experienced those kind of slow motion seconds in which the brain somehow resolves itself to accept disaster.  A few days ago as I was driving down Louisville in Monroe, an SUV of three 18 year olds sailed through their stop sign on the perpendicular street practically sweeping me and my little convertible off the road.  The seconds before the impact feel like hours in a dream that you’re trapped in.  You want to run, you want to move but logistically there is not the time.  In the hours after the crash, meeting the parents and filling out paperwork, I sat on the back of a tow truck flipping through all the ‘what if’ questions.  At the caboose of the thought train there’s an unsettling resolution that it is impossible to get away from our attachment and dependence on the body, our health deteriorating every day, and the dissolution of the materials that keep us functioning.

There very next day I attended a conference on crisis assessment in communities in which methods for planning for and responding to disasters were discussed.   University of New Orleans sponsor CHART—the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology—a team of professors and graduate students traveling around North Louisiana to investigate and implement disaster recovery programs.  Their mission is to partner with local communities and identify ways to mitigate its risks.  In the five-hour conversation-style presentation, they asked several questions about what it means to be prepared for the next disaster.  They postulate that for an organization to be resilient, it must be able to achieve its core objectives in the face of adversity.  Naturally after the events of the previous night, I was feeling a little skeptical about the ability to prepare for the unexpected.

Under the roof of the Ruston Civic Center, we had the opportunity to discuss the value systems in communities and the structural and practical support of these values.  These rely on the tangible systems, supporting these intangibles.  Wired to mostly filter and compute things with the right side of my brain, it is a constant struggle attempting to marry it to the left—the practical and the theoretical, ‘till death do us part.  

Kristina Peterson, a graduate research assistant for urban and regional planning, presented a few ideas about risk and values in a community and the practical application of these.   She explained to a room filled with business owners, school principals, non-profit workers, and ministers “not one of [your] entities is an island unto itself.”  But how do you go about linking the whole community?  And furthermore, is it in the interest of each individual to be connected to the community?  There seems to be an emphatic “yes” from the participants and leaders in the room.  The question of how to reconcile public interests and private interests has been a question asked for centuries, and I think still needs polishing.

Emphasizing the importance of individual initiatives as a part in caring for the whole, Peterson told a story of a supermarket in Jean Lafitte that was damaged after the storm.  The community went in and took an inventory of the Piggly Wiggly, and then handed out everything from the market to the community.  The man who owned it did not make anyone pay for the groceries, instead he had keys made and gave them to some of the leaders in the community.  After both hurricane Gustave and hurricane Ike, these people were able to utilize sustenance, helping others in the community.

Professor of Sociology at the University of New Orleans, Shirley Laska—a tall, blonde woman with a heavy sense of intelligence and emotion—gave the closing presentation titled “mitigation for your organization” in which she explained the importance of linking the social with the structural.  Earlier that morning, as people were still filing in and I was frantically downing weak coffees in search of caffeine, I had the chance to speak with Ms. Laska.  From the small slice of the thousands and thousands of productive, thoughtful, and heartfelt hours she must have poured into this project, I received a lasting impression of her dedication.

She praised Louisiana Tech University for its engineering program, professing her belief in melding the two sciences—social and structural.

She delivered such an engaging presentation at the very end of these five hours when we were all beginning to fade.  She made an important point that the buildings themselves are important to the values we uphold in community.  Before hurricane Katrina, she went on a hunt to build a hurricane resistant roof over her house.  In all of New Orleans, she only found one contractor who had simply been trained to build the roof.  After the hurricane, the roof had proved strong enough withhold the weight of a fallen tree without one leak.  Her point was that individuals within communities must be prepared for disaster especially for the structures under which we practice our values—such as zoos, museums, football stadiums, worship centers, bars, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, prisons, and so on.

The trajectory of the presentation was built upon steps to motivate community leaders to begin to view community as an obligation, which gives back to the participant.  Perhaps, you can protect the tangible but the intangibles are susceptible to a myriad of extinctions.  The assessment and planning aspect of anything is incredibly unsexy.  It is bland and borderlines paranoia.  However, in the event of disaster, those few crucial seconds will feel more tingling with life than all the coffee in the world.

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