Sunday, October 16, 2011

Disaster and Community

The floods that devastated so much of Vermont several weeks ago hit my town as well. Our river turned into a raging torrent, as if someone has turned on a spigot upstream. Quickly rising well above its banks, it swept through the valley, rushing down streets, filling up parking lots, inundating houses and businesses, carrying debris of all sorts -- trees, propane tanks, fences, toys, what-have-you -- wherever it went, leaving horrendous destruction in its wake. Many were left homeless, many without a car or other means of transportation. Many do not have insurance to cover the losses. Many lives were irrevocably changed, and in the current economy it is quite likely that those changes are not for the better.

A walk through some of the affected parts of town the next day revealed the extent of the damage. Chunks of paving had been deposited on downstream lawns; parts of the road bed had caved into the river; brand new sidewalks had been swept away like so much dust in the wind; mud and silt covered everything. Detritus littered yards; flower gardens, abloom with the colors of August one day, were in ruins; water, tree branches, and crud filled cars, trucks, mobile homes. Huge crevasses had appeared in the earth. It looked like a bomb had gone off -- or many bombs. Nothing would ever be the same on Water Street, which truly lived up to its name during those horrible hours on a Sunday evening. It is likely that nothing will ever be quite the same in our town.

One of the major events each year in my town is a three-day celebration of Labor Day. Our Labor Day festivities are known statewide, attended by people from miles away. They are a time when everyone comes together to ring out the summer, ring in the new school year, and celebrate the fact that we live in a picturesque town nestled in a beautiful river valley in Vermont.

This year our town mothers and fathers canceled the Labor Day Observances. They asked everyone in the community to help their neighbors harmed, sometimes deeply, by the flood waters. The community came together, not to celebrate and not to mourn, but to work together to clean up and take stock. Spontaneously, groups emerged to organize activities, to convey information, to collect food and clothing and distribute them to the homeless and to all the others who had lost their belongings in the deluge. Work crews -- composed of townspeople, students from the local university, and volunteers from outside the community -- labored from sunup to sundown. The American Legion and a local restaurant worked non-stop to provide food for the needy and for the volunteer workers; others prepared that food, brought in supplies, offered to help in innumerable ways, so that their neighbors could eat. No one waited for either big capital or big government to step in, though many hoped for quick action on the part of major institutions -- for at some point the resources of the local community are exhausted and help must come from outside. A locally run disaster relief center opened on the square and started publishing a resource guide for those in need of help. Soon FEMA was in business at the library and the governor came for a visit to offer whatever help the state could give. But throughout, the spirit of community never waned as fellow citizens did whatever they could to help their neighbors through the crisis. That spirit lives on even today, more than a month later.

The effect so far has been inspiring, a vivid illustration of the strength of community in a state where community is still valued because of the diversity it encompasses rather because of the lifestyles it excludes. Community here is not a lifestyle enclave, but a vibrant multiplicity. I am lucky to live in a real community -- not one of those gated places cynically called communities by their developers or one of those closed places (towns, counties, churches, sects, movements) that celebrate distrust and, frequently, hatred. The existence of vibrant communities is one of the strengths of Vermont, where some of the associational vitality that so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s persists even in the face of its near total demise elsewhere in our country. (This demise has been the premise of numerous studies and analyses, from the interviews conducted by Robert Bellah and his colleagues in the 1980s to the more recent research of Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol.)

Real citizenship involves being woven into community with others, diverse others not just those who resemble us, others who share a place even if they do not share an ideology. Citizens are ensconced in a cascading set of relationships that range from family and friends, through local communities and associations, to governmental institutions at all levels, through the sovereign people and its polity, out into the world at large. Without a haven in strong local communities, the broader, more far reaching relationships lose their ground and become abstract and shallow. Bucking the unfortunate trend the characterizes our day in our country, Vermont is a place where real citizenship is still possible, if uncommon.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, this story is so inspiring. People coming together and voluntarily helping each other is what America is all about. Not waiting for the government to fix things.