Traci shared that the community existed in “a magical time and space” in the weeks following the hurricane. When life returned to “normal” for the majority of the town, many people said they missed that special something–that sense of connection–they had felt after Irene. Together, Traci and I have been reflecting on the conditions that made it possible for the people of Pittsfield to come together the way they did. We identified some characteristics that may have influenced the community’s capacity to respond well in the aftermath of the disaster:
The first factor is that the community was cut off. Not only were roads and bridges washed out in every direction, there was no electricity or phone service for days. People used cell phones only for the most urgent communications. There were no televisions, no video games, no computers or landlines. The little electricity produced with generators needed to be conserved. In other words, many of the modern distractions that socially isolate us from one another were suddenly non-existent. People simply had each other and the work at hand.
Another factor that contributed to Pittsfield resilience was its size. Obviously, in such a small town the majority of people already knew one another and had some kind of a relationship. Surely there were people who didn’t always get along. But they all identified as part of the community, which facilitated the recognition that they were all in it together. One resident later said, “Even if your neighbor still ticks you off day-to-day, there’s that underlying knowledge that… when the water was coming up he showed up at my door and helped me out… [W]hen that sits under everything else, I think it has to change things.”
No one was coming to help in Pittsfield, at least not for a few days. Community members quickly realized they were going to have to depend on their own strengths and abilities during the “triage” stage of this disaster. They were united by the sheer amount of work that was called for: clearing debris, pumping out flooded basements, helping people salvage what they could from their homes and providing psychological and emotional support for one another. Angelique Lee, another resident said, “While we were working at a breakneck pace to re-establish households and outside communications, share gasoline, electricity, propane, food, medical needs… and account for every citizen… we didn’t have time to judge each other negatively. As a result we were all mightily impressed with our neighbors.”
There is no school or hospital in Traci’s community. But for days after Irene not only did the local restaurant owner grill up burgers and pizzas from his thawing freezer, parents organized an outdoor school for the town’s children on the village green. This included Spanish classes, lessons on Vermont wildlife and one-on-one tutoring for the older kids. Those with medical skills created a temporary clinic in the library, ensuring that medications and supplies were collected and distributed to the most needy. Shopkeepers extended credit to everyone, without concern for who could or would pay their bills. Town members courageously ventured out to assure that every person and animal was accounted for. Before long, everyone was offering their gifts. People stepped up to give free haircuts in the gazebo and yoga in the park; they organized garbage pick up and sweeping crews to minimize the dust. Irene helped nearly everyone find a way to offer their skills or discover talents they didn’t know they possessed.
This doesn’t mean that every gift found its place. Some of the things people gave were in poor condition or didn’t meet a direct need. For Traci and Mimi, the outpouring of donations was overwhelming: offers of housing, clothing and “stuff” came immediately. The shock of not knowing where she was going to live, coupled with the inundation of donations made it an extremely stressful period for Traci. As time went on she managed to say, “No, thank you” to some of the generous, but unnecessary gifts. And once in her new home she was able to figure out what she truly needed.