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Friday, October 22, 2021
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COLUMN: Lessons Learned from the Aftermath of Disaster

HSToday is proud to present a multi-part series from Emmy award winning director Christopher Allan Smith, a survivor of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, and documentary filmmaker. Following the fire, Smith took his talents and devoted them to helping others learn from the tragedy on the Paradise Ridge, and the impact of disaster on families, communities and the first responders and disaster planners whose responsibility it is to take these lessons into the future. This series, Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire, describes how preparedness plays out in reality: from running for your life away from the danger to emergency finances to the aftermath, told only like a survivor could share. HSToday presents this series to bring a voice to the victims of disaster and add some personal texture and experience to the impact of disasters, terrorism, and other tragic acts of violence. Read previous installments of this series here.

 

In the media stories around disasters, there is often a kind of curve that emerges.

Peace gives way to catastrophe. Unexpected heroes emerge, displaying service and courage. First responders, governmental and private groups rush in to nurse the wounded and restore peace – or at least lessen the destruction that chaos leaves behind.

Teary survivors survey the wreckage that was once their anonymous corner of the world and look to the future with resolution to build it all back. Wreckage is cleared and hammers start driving into 2x4s and, pretty soon after that, the story is ‘over.’

Like all stories from Hollywood, much of that narrative is built to evoke emotions. Some of it is fiction and some that is true is reframed in such a way that it misleads.

For those of us who have survived a true disaster, the road to recovery is twisted and strange and may even be a mirage. But the road to a worthwhile aftermath, the road to creating a good life and an enduring organization is possible.

In this closing entry in the Lessons Learned series, I’m here to offer the final lessons from what myself and my fellow citizens of the Paradise Ridge learned living through the ravaging of our community by the Camp Fire in November 2018.

Not All Lessons Are T-Shirt Friendly 

There seems to be a natural impulse among well-meaning people who, as they see someone struggling with the emotional or practical echoes of a disaster, give them some sort of the ‘pick yourself up and soldier on’ speech, with the subtext being something like, ‘Isn’t that over?’

Well-meaning as it is, heartfelt and caring even, in my experience it always hits the ear of a survivor as hopelessly naive. These things linger long after the news cameras are packed up and race to the next story and the tender ‘first anniversary’ stories are posted.

So take this one to heart first:

LESSON 1: There is No Closure. There Is Only After.

Being an American, one of the things I like most about our culture is our relentless optimism. But relentlessness is one dial tick from delusional.

We hope to face adversity, realize we’ll probably bow from the strain, then rally to lift ourselves up and soldier on stronger and wiser than before.

But here’s the thing about my experience with Paradise and the day it was consumed by the Camp Fire. It is gone. It’s heartbreaking, bleak and a glimpse of this existence’s darkest face. Reckoning with that difficulty is the core mission of recovering.

Buried on a website from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – it’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration section, no less – is a government chart that’s something like wisdom.

Finding your balance, and projecting that for your family or organization, will be the most quixotic path you’ll ever walk. It is all struggle and setbacks and slips. It is all a progress by inches.

There will be a lot of talk about rebuilding. That may happen. A tornado may come through and carry your house away. You’ll bunk with a neighbor until you can get things reset.

But for some disasters, there is no rebuilding. It’s all gone. What was there has vanished forever, and something new is being built close to where the memories linger.

But it’s not really rebuilding. It’s new building. New relationships will be there, new players. Who runs Bartertown feels like an apt question.

From https://www.samhsa.gov/dtac/recovering-disasters/phases-disaster:

Phase 1, the pre-disaster phase, is characterized by fear and uncertainty. The specific reactions a community experiences depend on the type of disaster. Disasters with no warning can cause feelings of vulnerability and lack of security; fears of future, unpredicted tragedies; and a sense of loss of control or the loss of the ability to protect yourself and your family. On the other hand, disasters with warning can cause guilt or self-blame for failure to heed the warnings. The pre-disaster phase may be as short as hours, or even minutes, such as during a terrorist attack, or it may be as long as several months, such as during a hurricane season.

Phase 2, the impact phase, is characterized by a range of intense emotional reactions. As with the pre-disaster phase, the specific reactions also depend on the type of disaster that is occurring. Slow, low-threat disasters have psychological effects that are different from those of rapid, dangerous disasters. As a result, these reactions can range from shock to overt panic. Initial confusion and disbelief typically are followed by a focus on self-preservation and family protection. The impact phase is usually the shortest of the six phases of disaster.

Goats began grazing for fuels reduction on March 3, 2021, along the West Branch in Paradise to improve forest health and wildfire safety for homeowners and landowners. The work is being conducted through the Butte County Fire Safe Council (BCFSC), a local nonprofit organization. (Town of Paradise/Facebook)

Phase 3, the heroic phase, is characterized by a high level of activity with a low level of productivity. During this phase, there is a sense of altruism, and many community members exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior. As a result, risk assessment may be impaired. The heroic phase often passes quickly into phase 4.

Phase 4, the honeymoon phase, is characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion. During the honeymoon phase, disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly. As a result, numerous opportunities are available for providers and organizations to establish and build rapport with affected people and groups, and for them to build relationships with stakeholders. The honeymoon phase typically lasts only a few weeks.

Phase 5, the disillusionment phase, is a stark contrast to the honeymoon phase. During the disillusionment phase, communities and individuals realize the limits of disaster assistance. As optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll, negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface. The increasing gap between need and assistance leads to feelings of abandonment. Especially as the larger community returns to business as usual, there may be an increased demand for services, as individuals and communities become ready to accept support. The disillusionment phase can last months and even years. It is often extended by one or more trigger events, usually including the anniversary of the disaster.

Phase 6, the reconstruction phase, is characterized by an overall feeling of recovery. Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives, and people adjust to a new “normal” while continuing to grieve losses. The reconstruction phase often begins around the anniversary of the disaster and may continue for some time beyond that. Following catastrophic events, the reconstruction phase may last for years.

LESSON 2: Be Prepared for the Aftermath

It turns out one of the worst movies of all time, PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, contains a nugget of wisdom for thinking about disasters:

“We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Having lived through the Camp Fire disaster, one of the things that becomes stark in hindsight but hard to see from before the grim event is how much influence disaster movies play on our thinking. In a sense, we all imagine the moment crisis comes, we all wonder what we would do in the face of danger, we all wonder how we would fare facing those trials.

But what about once we’ve survived? What do we do in our own experiences when we pass the moment in a movie where the credits would roll?

“I think we have to preach quite well preparedness,” CALFIRE Chief John Messina told me. “I think everybody focuses on what they can do for their house, and evacuation, but I think people need to mentally prepare for not only what happened that day, but effects after the fire. The fact that the town has been destroyed. Everybody’s lives have been turned upside down, and it’s not going back to normal anytime soon. [It will be] years, if it ever happens. How do you tell the civilians that this could happen, that your life will never be the same, you may never be able to go back to your home, your school may never open back up?”

This could be the fuel of 20 columns. But they would boil down to these questions:

Where would your organization do its work if the building you use is gone? What are the essentials you, your family or your organization need to retain to keep alive what is essential? What factors do you need in place to make that future possible?

The next time you walk into work, look around and imagine rebuilding that in one week somewhere else. What would that take?

The questions coming to your mind now are the ones you should be writing down and answering before you have to.

LESSON 3: Emotions Breed Rumors

Even without the malice of conspiracy theories, the emotional turmoil of disasters breeds rumors. Not only are people desperate to get information in a disaster; they’re desperate to give it Here’s something we all experienced in the Camp Fire. This is Paradise Town Hall, as it looks today.

Paradise, Ca., Town Hall (Google Earth)

Ace Hardware. Paradise High School. They are all still standing. On the day of the fire, according to rumors and social media they were all destroyed. In the chaos, they were surrounded by fire and looked ready to burn. Passing evacuees, fearful, grief-stricken, reported they had all burned. But what they saw was these places threatened and finished the ‘story’ with assumptions. For even the most reasonable of people, EMOTIONS BREED RUMORS.

LESSON 4: Think Regional Disasters, Not Just Local Ones

CALFIRE CHIEF DAVID HAWKS: “Wherever you are, we have to think about what would happen if you had a Katrina. And it flooded the entire New Orleans area. What would happen if we had a fire, and it didn’t just glance across Paradise, but burned through Paradise, or an earthquake that destroyed the Los Angeles basin. These are all things that we know are at risk, but it’s hard to get your mind around that magnitude.

Every fire we’ve had before – done, we rebuild, we kinda go back to normal. Even in the major wildland fires we’ve had in the past couple years, things kinda get back to normal because they’re still part of a community there. In this case – as you know, you lived there – things aren’t back to normal yet. I don’t see them getting back to normal for a long time. It’d be easy for me to sit here and tell other fire leaders, ‘Hey, prepare’. But I don’t think anyone needs to be told that, right? I think we all know that. What we need to start educating people on is, post-disaster is difficult, and you need to start preparing for the post-disaster… and I keep bringing this up: It’d be no different than that major earthquake that hit San Francisco. We all know that it could come, and we all know that it’s going to be devastating. But I think, truly people think that ‘OK, if it hits, my house gets destroyed, we’re rolling in back 6 months later driving to work.’ It’s not the case.”

Firefighters burn grassland around the Thermalito Forebay in Butte County, Calif., on June 3, 2021, to remove fire fuel and give fire crews valuable training. (CAL FIRE Butte Unit/Butte County Fire Department)

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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