When the waters recede, the flood has not finished

| Neil Denton

I have worked with communities affected by flooding. The first hours and days are often a bit of a blur, and despite the best laid plans, chaotic. Sandbags and grab bags. Frantic and frenetic attempts to move the people and things we love to a place of safety. Disruption, displacement, and devastation. The hours, days, and nights of anxiety as we all watch the water and the weather. Is the worst behind us, or is there more to come? 

Sooner or later, the waters recede, to be replaced by a flood of human kindness, solidarity, and strength. The “clean-up” begins, often with a surge of positive energy comparable in strength to that we saw in those days of destruction. It feels similarly chaotic, as communities organically organise and state bodies struggle to keep up, (as they attempt to find their most effective supportive role, or wrestle to regain control). 

When I’d seen such events happen from far away, they always appeared short-lived. Like the waters, the news headlines and twitter feeds would quickly recede. I always assumed that once the skips had been removed, the roads had been re-opened, the insurance claims submitted and settled, then normal life would return. 

It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. 

I remember vividly being shown around a property just weeks after a flood, where landlord, tenants, family, and friends had worked tirelessly to repair and restore. The plaster new, the paint fresh, the carpets replaced. I shared the excitement and pride of those showing me around. It was infectious, amazing, exhilarating. My colleague – who had seen such things before – was smiling politely, but struck me as oddly detached. It made me cross, and I told her so. She looked at me with kind but weary eyes, and said “mould”. Because if the walls haven’t been thoroughly dried out – a process that can take many months – then sooner or later the paint bubbles and peels, the cracks re-appear, and the mould comes through. And the process of restoration has to begin; all – over – again. 

This was the first time I had attempted to apply my skills at mediation and conflict transformation to support communities affected by disaster. I have learnt and un-learnt a lot since then. 

To begin with, the clearly defined and distinctive terms used in disaster management made a lot of sense. Response, Recovery, Risk, Mitigation, Preparation, Resilience. I saw these words on slide-decks, as the backdrop to many engaging presentations about “good practice”, and quickly adopted them as my own. 

As time goes by, and my lived experience of working alongside disaster affected communities grows, they feel a lot less descriptive, and increasingly disingenuous. 

The literature would lead you to believe that clear distinctions can be drawn between “acute” disasters – an explosion, a single storm event, an earthquake – and “chronic” disasters like the pandemic we are in the midst of, or multi-year droughts we have seen ravage countries and communities. 

I’m not so sure. I suspect it’s all a question of scale and perspective. 

To describe this as a chronic disaster seems somehow wrong – because for so many it has been defined by acute moments of loss, disaster, and despair. However, to view it solely as an amalgamation of these acute episodes is equally unfit – especially for those whose moments and days of isolation have become weeks, months and years of chronic loneliness and disconnection.

If we are ever to make sense of this, we can only do so by adopting both big picture and granular perspectives – at the same time. 

In recent months those we look to for leadership have increasingly adopted the language of Recovery. Whether we get there by “building”, “bouncing”, “believing”, or “blustering”, there appears to be a general consensus that we are headed back towards “normal” or even “better”. They all infer the journey will be quick. 

I suspect that few of those who speak these words have stuck around long enough post flood to see the paint peel, the walls crack, and the chronic coughs take hold. 

If and when the waters of Covid recede; the mud, the debris, and the contamination left behind will become increasingly clear – to those who are still close enough to see it. But I suspect it will be many months and years before the full extent of the deeper damage becomes apparent and the mould comes through. But take it from one who has seen it before – it will – because it always does when we rush to repaint. 

The path to “recovery” is not linear, it is not straight, and it is longer for some than for others. Indeed, for many, it will be a journey too long to complete. 

How we choose to make that journey, who we choose to wait for, who we leave behind in the rush, how we help each other along the way – will define what our Recovery really looks like.

As the years have passed and my experience has grown, I’ve come to realise that disaster recovery and conflict transformation have a lot in common with each other. 

They both take time. 

They require us to; 

  • keep aware of two things at once: where we want to go, and where we are now. 
  • accept that the exact route is uncertain. 

That it;

  • is a bit like having a compass but not a map. 
  • is not all about the quality of the journey, or all about the destination, it is both, and we cannot achieve one without the other. 
  • won’t all go to plan and that’s ok, as long as we keep talking to each other, and remain open to surprises.

That above all we need to give it time. Time to be kind to ourselves and each other. Time to reach across the empty and suspicious spaces left by two years of keeping each other apart. Time and courage to embrace a bit of mess, to reach out, to be curious. To put our bi-focals on, keeping sight of the goal, but being attentive and responsive to the everyday happenings. 

The Bridge Builders Handbook is our best attempt to distil the key elements of conflict transformation, in ways that are also relevant to community recovery.

We offer this to any who might find it useful. To those – like us – that believe our strength lies in the bonds that hold us together. 

We would love you to take a moment, give the handbook a read, and imagine a Recovery based on connection, collaboration, and trust. 

If you want to know more, if we can help, we would love to hear from you. Email me, Neil Denton or Immy from the Relationships Project.

Neil believes there is an energy within disagreement and conflict that can be a powerful force for positive change. He helps communities in conflict to find ways to reduce violence, increase justice, solve real life problems and strengthen human relationships. He is an Independent Community Mediator and a Professor in Practice with the After Disasters Network who specializes in conflict transformation. He works to find ways that place communities at the heart of our thinking and doing, and to explore and demonstrate how the principles and practices of conflict transformation can be beneficial to disaster prevention, response and recovery. He also spends time swimming and attempting to create the perfect roast potato. Follow Neil on Twitter: @cushdiebardy

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