Marking anniversaries can be a complicated thing, particularly when it comes to disasters. Do you mark a date? An hour? A minute? Is it appropriate to remember the moment the devastation began, or the moment it ended? The St. John community and the greater US Virgin Islands were hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria two weeks apart, to the day, in 2017. Do we mark the 6th? The 20th? Both? Today, as I reflect on September 2017, I find myself wanting to mark different dates. I want to remember the dates on which this community came together, the dates that showed just how remarkable the residents of this Territory are. I remember the St. John community gathering on Friday, September 8th, in Mongoose Junction, having come together to assess the damage and begin trying to rebuild. I remember restaurant owners, managers, and staff making plans to utilize this generator and that walk-in and these kitchens, to ensure that free food was available for whoever needed it. That same day, I remember getting the first message that help was coming – not a formal alert of any kind, but a message from a friend, telling me that private boats were coming from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, to bring supplies and help with evacuations. I remember helping to organize a system that put 40 people on that first boat, and I remember the captain and crew telling us “we’ll be back tomorrow, first thing, with more boats”. From the first moment, relief was rooted in community. I remember on Saturday, September 9th, more boats arriving from Puerto Rico, and also from Christiansted, St Croix. Small fishing vessels and larger charter vessels, laden with supplies donated by individuals and families who wanted to help and so donated their own emergency supplies. None of us knew then the true cost of these donations. I remember hugging friends and strangers, and putting them on boats and sending them on to whatever was next. I remember the flexibility and generosity of those who could have put a stop to the whole effort based on “protocol”, but who instead chose to acknowledge there was a need, and to let a group of well-intentioned volunteers find solutions. If I’m honest, the next 10 days are a bit blurry, and I’d be hard pressed to put a date to most of my memories. But I remember how bright the stars were at night, with no man-made light to dim them. I remember the 7 am meeting during which we found out Hurricane Maria was going to impact the Territory as a Category 5 storm, and I remember the way the air went out of the room. Out of all the extraordinary things that happened in September of 2017, one that will always stand out is this: The day the ports were to close ahead of Maria, the crews from St Croix made one final trip. Even as a Category 5 storm bore down on St Croix, they came to St. John with more relief, then went home to haul out and batten down for their own disaster. I cried on the dock, with gratitude and astonishment and more than a little bit of fear, not knowing when, or if, we would see each other again. I wrote on September 16th, 2017, “…for now, I can only say that everything has changed and yet the core of this place I call home remains the same, full of love, a strong sense of community, and the drive to rebuild.” Five years later I remain in awe of the strength and yes, resilience, of this community. One thing I know for sure is that as we move into a future of ever more complex and layered disasters, magnified by climate change and human development, it is critical that we remain committed to community-rooted resilience solutions.
At Love City Strong, we believe that a community-based approach to preparedness is critical to success in disaster response. Research and first hand experience both show that when we are more prepared as families and neighborhoods, we improve recovery outcomes. When embraced year-round in an all-hazards context, community preparedness improves the ability of individuals and groups to limit the effects of hazard impacts and manage their resources until help arrives. As residents of island communities, isolated by definition, it is particularly important to lean into individual and community preparedness. Our communities thrive when we develop internal resources, skill sets, and commodities that help jump start response and recovery following a disaster. According to FEMA, many people who believe themselves “prepared” have really done very little in the way of preparation. In a survey, 40 percent of respondents did not have household plans, and nearly 60 percent did not know their community’s evacuation routes. Perhaps most troubling, while 20 percent of respondents indicated that they had a disability that would affect their capacity to respond to an emergency situation, only 1 in 4 of those reported having made any arrangements specific to that disability to help them stay safe in the event of an emergency. So where can you begin? Community preparedness has three parts: take personal responsibility, seek out training and skill building opportunities, and connect with your community. Take Personal Responsibility You can’t support your neighbors and friends if you are struggling yourself. Make emergency planning for your household and your family a priority. Create an emergency plan, practice it regularly, and make sure that each member of your household is taken into account, including the needs of children and pets. Household preparedness includes building an emergency kit, learning evacuation routes and shelter locations, and planning financially for hazard impacts. Seek Out Training and Skill Building In the event of a disaster, you may be the first help on hand for someone. There are many opportunities to build the skills necessary to be helpful in a response, from first aid and CPR to Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, to HAM radio operations, and much more. In the US Virgin Islands, if you’re interested in being a medical first responder, each island has a Rescue organization you can volunteer with. For all-hazards training, you can register for CERT through the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA). Another resource is your local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), which can connect you with volunteer opportunities. Connect With Your Community Knowing your community is key in the aftermath of a disaster. You can start small, by making sure you know your neighbors. Who has medical issues? Who has access and functional needs that might require extra support in an emergency? Connect with your church or your local community organizations to see how you may be able to volunteer. Reach out to your local business community, including Rotary and Chamber of Commerce, to start important conversations about business continuity of operations (a topic for another day!) and emergency planning. One of the most important things after a disaster is making sure resources reach those most in need, and by knowing your community, you can help ensure that happens. Here in the US Virgin Islands, we are used to the issues that surround hurricane preparedness. What we’ve learned over the past two years as a result of the pandemic, however, is that we can’t anticipate when, what, or where the next crisis will be. The best way to make sure our communities are safer, more resilient, and more prepared, is to start close to home. For more resources, please visit our website, www.lovecitystrongvi.org
What is a “culture of readiness”, and why is it important? We often hear about building a culture of preparedness, in the context of emergency management. However, as a community recovers from a disaster impact they must not only be prepared, they must be ready for and open to change. The same is true for a society in the throes of a pandemic, learning the “new normal”. Change is inevitable, and a resilient and ready community embraces this truth. The Influence of Culture All people are influenced by cultural factors that shape their decisions and viewpoints. Each of us grow up learning how to value certain ways of doing and perceiving things. Culture is the ultimate cross-sector exercise, encompassing economics, belief systems, family structure, child-rearing, nature, and even risk management. Even seemingly unrelated areas of our lives are tied together by culture. In small, close knit communities like the US Virgin Islands, and St John in particular, culture influences decisions daily. A Culture of Preparedness One of the reasons that a grassroots approach to preparedness and readiness is so important is that if community engagement does not align with the community’s culture, the effort will not be sustainable. FEMA identifies the four guiding principles of culturally informed preparedness initiatives as Trust, Inclusion, Cross-Cultural Communication, and Support for Local Practices and Successes. Given these four components, a community can build sustainable preparedness practices. FEMA’s stated goal of building a “culture of preparedness” is centered on achieving a certain level of cultural buy-in about preparing for disasters. Often, communities who have not been impacted don’t share the sense of urgency that characterize communities in recovery. A shared culture in this area would normalize the conversations necessary to increase preparedness before an impact, rather than after the fact. However, the question remains: Is a “prepared” community also necessarily a “ready” community? Beyond Preparedness, to Readiness A culture of readiness embodies not just preparedness but a willingness to move towards something different. This openness then enables healthy and sustainable change. Whether you’re building a change-ready organization or community, remaining open to feedback, is a critical trait. Feedback, whether in the form of questions, challenges, or disagreement, often helps to drive meaningful change. Challenging your own assumptions can result in more effective solutions. An organization or community can benefit from discussion in the same way, often identifying unmet needs, underserved populations, or underperforming sectors through public engagement. Therefore, it is important, within a culture of readiness, to establish structures that allow people to be actively involved in decision making processes, bringing in the right stakeholders at the right level at the right time. When the whole community feels included and heard, change feels less stressful and more intentional. Our goal at Love City Strong is to build a culture of readiness within our community. As we recover from the twin Category 5 hurricanes of 2017 and emerge from the last two years marked by global pandemic, the Virgin Islands community truly understands that preparedness and readiness go hand in hand. We must be prepared for future climate related crises, and we must also be ready for the rapid period of change in which we find ourselves.