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What helps a city like Houston recover after a disaster

Shift in thought

Disaster experts point to a community’s devotion to qualities such as trust, patience, listening, and equality as essential to planning and achieving a recovery. Houston’s success in its rescue efforts gives it a head start. 

Water levels start to recede near downtown Houston on Aug.30 in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

If one moment captured the start of Houston’s recovery from hurricane Harvey, it was a sporting event on Sept. 2 that reconnected the city’s scattered and still water-logged residents: The beloved Astros baseball team played the Mets in a downtown stadium and won the doubleheader. The games were a welcome symbol of resilience as the city begins to muster the resources to bounce back from more than 40 inches of rain in late August.

Disaster experts have long tried to define the characteristics of people who are able to rebuild their lives and improve their community after a major storm, fire, or earthquake. For Houston and the Gulf area, the list of tangible and practical tasks remains long, such as the need to restore some 40,000 houses, improve water controls, and clean up toxic waste. Congress must also decide how much aid to provide. And Texas might want to rethink zoning. Yet studies of post-disaster societies point to intangible qualities that also bring recovery and even open opportunities for a new direction.

One quality, as was evident in Houston with the heroic rescue of stranded residents by volunteers, is civic kindness toward strangers in need. Houston may be the nation’s fourth-largest city and one of the most diverse, yet its people took care of each other. The crisis stripped away differences over race, religion, or class. That calming spirit was again on display as churches, mosques, and temples reopened their doors and held services of prayer, outreach, and gratitude.

“Gaps will be left in the seams of our city and it falls on all [of] us to seal them with kindness and patience,” a Houston Chronicle editorial stated. “The storm has passed. The recovery now begins.”

Patience is particularly needed for a recovery because many people are disoriented, lost, and eager for a rapid return to normal life. Yet a community needs time to reflect and deliberate in making crucial decisions that can protect it from further hazards and even improve itself. Post-disaster planning requires a social trust in which diverse voices can be heard. Such listening helps people to rise above seeing themselves as passive victims. And it is best achieved through horizontal networks of local groups rather than top-down action by a central authority. After hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, New Orleans rushed to put its initial recovery plan in place without much input. Residents reacted and forced a revision.

Listening also requires a commitment to equality. Disasters can reveal inequities in patterns of housing and land use as well as other social problems. Recovery is a process, not a goal, and must empower all stakeholders through the sharing of information and by fixing long-delayed problems. “This is a city not run by one person. This is a city that’s run by 2.3 million Houstonians,” Mayor Sylvester Turner told the Chronicle.

Many other traits help in a recovery, such as creativity and flexibility. One study of 1,400 Japanese after the country’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami pointed to eight characteristics in all, including “self-transcendence,” or the awareness of the meaning of life from a spiritual perspective.

For societies hit by tragedy, finding attributes such as trust and altruism can take hard work. Houston, which showed widespread care and adaptability during the storm, may become known less for the disaster than how it found the character to recover from it.

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