Thinking about disasters is part of daily life in the resilience world, and the past month has been intense. I have written about the kind of work that needs to be done to prepare, the ways that organizations can find value in getting ready, and the ways that communities can build resilience every day. Living in California, hurricanes feel remote and I am able to assess objectively. Earthquakes are closer to home and I need to call on personal resolve to be objective. But the recent disaster in Las Vegas is on another level. There is no objectivity, no resolve. I surrender to the grief and horror and fear.
I dropped my daughter off at preschool on Monday morning. Usually that is a fairly simple task, but she just couldn’t separate. She screamed and cried when I left—I had to go to work, and just couldn’t stay the few more minutes she demanded. I heard her shrieks as I walked out the gate and into the parking lot. As a mother who spends a lot of time thinking about disasters, this separation shredded me. I think of mothers who hear this sound for other reasons, or who will never hear it again. And then I got in the car, and heard news about Las Vegas.
On Facebook, I saw a post about what to do in the event of an active shooter. I am familiar with these types of diagrams and share them regularly—what should be in your “go bag,” how to make an emergency plan, what to do when the earth shakes. Stop, drop and hold on. Because things will move. I’ve talked to my kid about it. She knows about earthquakes. But for active shooters, the triage list of things to do—run, hide, fight—are visceral, and humbling. Because the threat is not a moving earth nor a giant storm but one or more humans who have gone so far off the rails that this type of act makes sense to them. How does one explain that to a 4-year-old? How does one protect her?
The thing that keeps me going in looking at disasters on a daily basis is the amazingness of humans, their ability to rise to the occasion, to step up to save strangers, to organize together, to find meaning and connection and beauty in the most unthinkable moments. This disaster was no different. I heard about the heroic work in hospitals around the area who received hundreds of gunshot victims all at once, how calls when out for doctors, nurses, custodians, blood. And the calls were answered by hundreds of hospital employees and thousands of citizens who stepped up. It’s what people do. It’s part of who we are as a species. It propels me to work toward resilience, to lift up and amplify and enable this most basic instinct to make a better world.
Most disasters are human-caused. We ignore engineers and scientists who tell us of the hazards we face, the locations of fault lines, the exposure of coastlines, and the weakness of levees. We leave the most vulnerable to live in danger zones. We let our infrastructure fester. We watch warzones and see floods of refugees and close our gates. The temptation of denial is deep. I understand the impulse of climate change denial—acceptance is painful. Californians live in earthquake denial. This country is in gun denial. Like climate change denial, it serves and is fueled by specific interests that we need to identify in order to fight.
Social isolation is one of the greatest vulnerabilities for any hazard. Isolated individuals are more likely to be harmed by disasters of all kinds, and will have the hardest time recovering. At the same time, fragmented, polarized society will inevitably breed discontented individuals full of rage, ready to act out with the most damaging tools at his disposal. We can see and predict that. The combination of toxic individualism and raging nihilism with easy access to guns creates a powder keg situation. How can we prepare? How can we prevent it from happening again, and how can we heal? What does a world look like where this doesn’t happen? How can we get there?
Disaster can be transformative. When everything breaks down, people have the opportunity to come together, to find meaning in their efforts, to have a sense of agency to make a difference. When we work to build community resilience, these are the attributes we are working toward. How can we create the opportunity for people to come together, to take action, to have their voices heard, to find meaning? What are the physical, infrastructural, institutional, organizational attributes that enable community resilience?
At the core, the work of resilience building involves healing the rifts in social fabric that keep us isolated and distrustful of one another, of seeing and celebrating our self interest in the common good. This is not a utopian fantasy, it is very much within the realm of the possible, the product of effective community organizing. I don’t know if it has the power to transform would-be mass shooters, or if that model of disaster, now unleashed, will increase like hurricanes and heat waves in a changing climate.
I pick my child up from school without incident and hold her close. I send my love and prayers and rage to the families who will never have these moments again. I dedicate my work to them, and fight to retain my faith in the goodness of people. I keep working on building resilience in my city of Los Angeles.
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