“No more prizes for predicting the rain, only prizes for building the arks.” —Don Beck
This quote appeared on the invite for the Vermont Art of Hosting that took place in late August, 2011. Little did we know that a week after the training Vermonters would be putting their ark building skills to the test when the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene tore the state apart. The calling question for our Art of Hosting was: What are the conversations we need to have with each other to build healthy and resilient communities now? We explored meaningful conversation as a catalyst for community building in the region, where belonging, identity and neighborliness are dyed-in-the-wool traditions.
In Vermont, Hurricane Irene demonstrated (as have other recent tragedies) that disasters of this type and scale often create ideal conditions for communities to become stronger and more resilient. Of course, arriving at resilience via catastrophe is by no means the ideal scenario. But as people move through grief and despair, they recognize their own resourcefulness and come to rely upon the strengths and gifts of others. The day after Irene hit the Northeast, I wrote an email asking participants to consider what purpose their hosting might serve now. I shared:
Given all that has now happened… it is more important than ever to remember, truly and deeply, that we are inter-dependent beings. That whatever the problem, no matter how enormous, community is the answer. Maybe we couldn’t put our finger on exactly what ‘community’ meant in our AoH training, but I am damn sure that in the coming days, weeks and months, Vermonters are going to feel exactly what it means.
And this is just what happened in the small community of Pittsfield, one of many Vermont towns devastated by the flooding. My friend and Pittsfield resident, Traci Templeton, lost her home in the storm. Her story, and her community’s story, begin with destruction and loss, but evolve into narratives of possibility, renewal, flexibility and resilience.
For ten years, Traci lived with her daughter, Mimi, on the edge of town in a two-bedroom house tucked between two little rivers. On August 28, 2011 those rivers flooded their banks with such intensity that the force of the riotous waters buckled the asphalt in enormous chunks and twisted off guard rails, ravaging Traci’s home and the homes of eight other families in Pittsfield.
At around 10:15 AM that Sunday, Traci took her framed photographs and a few other important items upstairs. A short while later, friends from the community checked in on her; they were clear that she was going to have to leave her home as soon as possible. She waded to safety through knee-deep water a little before 11:30am. A short while later, the first floor of the house was submerged in ten feet of water. A raging river ran through Traci’s house and spanned the width of Route 100 at its side. For days we heard nothing. All power and phone lines were gone in Pittsfield, and the road was washed out in both directions. On Tuesday, my ever-optimistic friend posted on Facebook: “Safe! Mimi and I have our past and our future, our friends and family. My community rocks!”
I wrote to Traci in October to learn more about her experience of community resilience after Irene. She recommended I watch a slideshow composed by Pittsfield resident and photographer, Barb Wood, about the hurricane and the days that followed. Between photos of upturned trees and houses ripped from their foundations, Barb asks: “What do you do when the town is without power… you know everyone is safe… the food is going to spoil… and there is no road in or out?” The answer: “You throw a town-wide BBQ for everyone and get reacquainted with your neighbors.” And that’s what Pittsfield did.