In an Age of Constant Disaster, What Does It Mean to Rebuild?

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Mano suggests that a community bound together by its response to one crisis is better prepared for the next. Residents had not only an intimate grasp of the resources their neighborhood contained, but enough social glue that they could demonstrate collective leadership. They offer a vision of one way our communities can evolve to meet an era of constant disaster.

For a glimpse at how a different world might take root even in the middle of a system shock, consider the case of West Street Recovery. In the days after Houston was flooded by Hurricane Harvey, Andrew Barley responded to a Facebook post calling for help with water rescues. Soon enough, he had joined a small crew of volunteers. “Water rescue turned into passing out hot meals, turned into muck and guts — which is cleaning out houses after the storm — turned into passing out clean clothes and cleaning supplies,” Barley says. The crush of disaster meant there was little time at first for deliberation and bureaucracy. Even in the crucible of calamity, they managed to articulate a set of shared values and an agreement: Decisions would be made by consensus, but one voice could not overrule an otherwise unanimous choice. Before long, the volunteer operation had become a formal nonprofit.

Many such efforts emerge in the immediate aftermath of disaster, then dissipate as the recovery reaches its limits and compassion fatigue sets in. “The real question is not why this brief paradise of mutual aid and altruism appears, but rather why it is ordinarily overwhelmed by another world order,” Solnit writes in her book. But five years after Harvey, West Street Recovery has not only continued ongoing disaster response, but spawned a spinoff effort that’s also focused on organizing residents around political aims. Perpetual disaster has been the context for that work. “From our perspective, it was Harvey; and then from Harvey, there was a tropical storm two years after,” Barley reflected. “And from that, there was the pandemic; and then from the pandemic, there was social uprising. And then from social uprising, there was winter storm Uri. From winter storm Uri to now, we’re facing levels of inflation that our working-class communities haven’t seen, or their generation hasn’t seen, in years.” Ben Hirsch, West Street co-director, shares the group’s fundamental philosophy: “We’re trying to imagine the world that we want, and act and run our organization in that way.”

This is not the kind of effort poised to scale into a large organization. For the first four years, Hirsch said, they worked in four ZIP codes. Now they work in five. The ideal future for West Street, Barley imagines, is that the community that gave rise to it builds the capacity in itself to carry on the work, and he goes on to share the knowledge he’s built with other people in other places. In this community, struck by disaster after disaster, they’ve found ways to move through both the recurring shocks and the systemic ills that give rise to them at once. What would change about the ways we live in this age of disaster if we invested in that kind of localized mutual aid all over the globe?

The stealthiest danger in a world shaken by ongoing calamities might be that calamity becomes ordinary. We learn to cope with it from day to day, but lose the ability to imagine beyond it. I hope the articles in this special issue about rebuilding are an antidote to that danger. Disaster may be our present and future, but may the certainty of a vastly changing world keep us also alert to its vast possibility.

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