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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

State of Survivors: For Survivors of Traumatic Events, There Is Before and After

Talk of closure or ‘getting over it’ is understandable for those who have not experienced it, but obscene for those who have.

One of the weirder bits of experience I’ve come across in the 20 years since the September 11 attacks is how much in common the worst and best aspects of life have with one another: living through a traumatic event and having a child.

If you’re like me, by the time you had a child, you had heard the warnings on the effects it would have on your life, the bracing chill of shouldering new responsibilities, the rapturous joy in having a small human connected to you like no other, and the kaleidoscope of other experiences parents have shared since humans first emerged. But it wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I understood. Experiencing this life-altering event was at the same time exactly like I had been told and so foreign and new in its lived contours it was like I entered it in cold, perfect ignorance and was living as though I was the first human to have the experience. Describing the essence to those who had not experienced felt impossible, and communicating the essence to those who shared the gusts of parenthood was unnecessary. 

So have I found it to be with disaster since the attacks of September 11, 2001. When I witnessed those events on TV in a living room, I was a spectator dimly grasping at the horrors visited on those directly affected. I could imagine losing family, running for my life, witnessing the abominations of the experience – choices like burning to death in the towers or leaping to your final fate, sitting in an airline seat on Flight 93 hoping the “assurances” of the highjackers would be true or taking your fate in your hands and acting – but being safely removed it was all an experience pushed through a scrim.

But in the 20 years since, I have found a kind of 9/11 comes for many of us. Though most of us are blessed beyond reason to live in the security and comfort of 21st century civilization, the protection is not perfect. More often than one can comfortably acknowledge, the chaos of nature (the natural order or our own raw natures) asserts itself and we must deal with it as we can.

For some it may be called 9/11 but for others it might come as Hurricane Katrina or Ida, the Sandy Hook or Las Vegas shootings; for others, the Carr Fire, Camp Fire or Dixie Fire for still more. 

For me, it began as a cloud rising up above my town of Paradise, Calif., on November 8, 2018, and ended with most of the communities on the Paradise Ridge in Butte County burned to the ground by the Camp Fire. I have learned since the experience of watching Paradise burn was much like 9/11 for those watching TV – spectacular images of heartbreak and horror playing across the screens of CNN, FoxNews, ABC, CBS, etc. I did not see it myself, of course, as in those moments my TV was burning to cinders along with the life I had made with my family in Paradise and I was with my sons, bracing ourselves through the first deafening roars of shock and loss. 

“I still am dogged by thoughts of Paradise though the town I knew can only be seen now in past images on Google Earth.”

So I am here to speak a bit for the survivors, I suppose – to give some glimpse, some warning, some manifesto on the experience of survivors (never victims) not found in the essential if colorless whitepapers on preparation and response. 

Here are those thoughts in no particular order:

There is no closure – When I was a kid living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, there were still survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Every year as their numbers dwindled they would be interviewed on local TV, stand at local commemoration services and give talks at area schools – coupled with lessons for kids about jumping under our desks if the shaking began. What I didn’t understand then that I cannot unlearn now is they were there because that experience pressed on and transformed their experience of life so deeply they could not escape its influence. 

The city they had known and loved vanished in a day of crumbling dust and smoke. Something called San Francisco was still in the same place, but it was not their San Francisco. It was as though they had been ripped from their lives and transported to a new existence where their most cherished places no longer existed. They had an experience that could be endured and risen above but its influence never faded. They could describe the smell of the dust and fire 70 years later as through they were breathing it still. I still am dogged by thoughts of Paradise though the town I knew can only be seen now in past images on Google Earth.

While this may not touch your thoughts, think now that the only thing we have left of the Twin Towers are periodic pillars of light where they stood. So close you can almost still touch them, but never again feel them nor the people that day took. That yearning loss never fades. Talk of closure or ‘getting over it’ is understandable for those who have not experienced it, but obscene for those who have.

A neighborhood burned to the ground by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 20, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Daniel Torok)

Tragedies and Disasters Are Different – There is an understandable impulse in those witnessing the experience of survivors to think they can take tragedies in their own life – death of a loved one, incurable illness, car accident, etc. – and ‘amplify’ them in their minds to get some idea of what those who live through disasters experience. But it’s just not so.

What’s clear to those of us who have lived through a 9/11-like experience is everyday heartbreaks come with a constellation of rituals and responses – friendly outreach, funerals and wakes, remembrances and community gatherings, church resources and spiritual structures – that place those tragedies, painful as they are, in controlled boxes we all are used to and acknowledge are part of the normal flow of life. Tragedies, emergencies (apartment fire, building collapse, disease cluster) are horrid but manageable. The mechanisms of a society run to absorb and ameliorate them.

Disasters are a different animal. They are of such a scale they break through the walls and channels of civilization and – at least for a time – force us to live through the pure chaos of nature. Disasters are the presence of massive tragedy and absence of the working machinery of society. They outstrip our ability to cope, at least for awhile. 

You cannot have a school bake sale to aid survivors if the school has burned. There is no temporary shelter at church if the church has flooded. Disasters like Ida or the Camp Fire or the 1906 earthquake smash a society, sometimes flinging its residents far away. There are still thousands of residents of the Paradise Ridge scattered around the country, having fled California even as the smoke was still rising. There is a residue that is left from living outside the psychological presence of civilization, even for a few hours.

This clip from my documentary on the lessons learned from the Camp Fire sheds some light on the human scale overwhelming even the best disaster response:

The Footprint of Mind –  All of this is to say for survivors the aftermath of these experiences is the most thorny, fractured, chaotic thing people can experience. Though I have gone through hours of counseling, empathetic talks with family and friends, connecting remembrances in the brotherhood/sisterhood of survivors, I still feel like the experience is a raging fire in the back of my mind. It is a rampaging chaos that is only settling millimeter by millimeter years after. Maybe that is just my reaction. 

What I do know now is that I find myself with so much more empathy, sympathy, grace and understanding for those who have gone through life’s worst hardships. I find myself looking for resources like this from Mental Health America (https://www.mhanational.org/coping-disaster), passing them to those around me and checking off the boxes in myself as I try to manage the effects of what my friends, family and community have experienced. 

The fact of the matter is if people could get past and ‘get over’ these experiences with the ease or logic or timing assumed by those outside, we would. The footprint of mind these experiences leave is more thank can easily be expressed. It is more than you would imagine. And when you try to expand your horizons and account for all I have said, just know it is even more than that and when you meet your next survivor, of 9/11, of Maria and, yes, of COVID-19, extend to them the grace you would want for your own children going through it.

Christopher Allan Smith
An Emmy-Award Winning documentarian, Christopher Allan Smith lived in Paradise, California, with his family until the Camp Fire consumed his home in November 2018. Since then, he has been conducting interviews and research into the history of the fire as well as the lessons taken by first responders, civilians, government officials and private disaster planners, with an eye toward producing multiple projects based on those lessons. He also acted as a Field Producer for Ron Howard’s REBUILDING PARADISE as well as the writer/director of the PBS broadcast documentary A HIGH AND AWFUL PRICE: LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE CAMP FIRE. He is the owner and founder of RocketSpots.tv, a video production company that produces a wide range of documentary, promotional and online projects.

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