WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Disasters, Tough Decisions, and the New Normal

Feb 17, 2016

I never wanted to be a disaster researcher.  In fact, I tried my hardest to avoid it.  The first site for my dissertation research was supposed to be near the town of Campeche in the Yucatan Peninsula.  In October of 1995, while preparing to go to the field, not one but two hurricanes made landfall within a week of each other.  I decided to move my research to Ecuador. 

This avoidance strategy worked until I found myself in the midst of another disaster.  Having researched fishing communities in Louisiana, I discovered that I had something meaningful to contribute to understanding how these communities were rebuilding - or not rebuilding - after hurricane Katrina. 

In 2008 I found misfortune in my own back yard with the historic flooding along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.  And now in the spring of 2016, I find myself in the midst of another tragedy.  This time it’s not environmental, but political and economic.  Western Illinois University and others in the state and the nation (Berkeley, Louisiana State and the New York and Pennsylvania university systems just to name a few) are facing a situation like none they have encountered before. 

After more than a decade of researching and teaching about disasters, there are only two things I know for sure.  One - not everyone survives, and two - those who come out on the other side are forever changed. 

There are several lessons to be drawn from the vast anthropological literature that are applicable to the situation we find ourselves in today.  Let me share three observations I think are relevant. 

One:  In the immediate stages of a disaster, people must work together to protect their community. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
Credit Rich Egger

After extensive research in areas that were flooded in 2008 Casagrande, Jones, and I (2015) discovered that despite internal conflicts, socio-economic, and/or political differences, people were able to identify vital components of their community they needed to protect for survival. Once the levees breached and the flood waters receded leaders had to make painful choices about what they wanted their community to look like in the future.  Would they rebuild in vulnerable locations or reorganize and reimagine their community based on the “new normal?” 

Additional research shows that in order for communities to rebound there must be people in charge who are not afraid to make difficult and unpopular choices. Communities who have approached this task mindfully are more successful in the long run than those who have been reactionary and worked against each other.  

WIU’s “new normal” is a reality of reduced state funding and declining enrollment.  As a community we have difficult questions to ask and answer.  Do we want to provide the best possible public undergraduate education to students in this region or do we only want to be something else? 

Two:   Bureaucracies will do their best to withhold information that makes getting to the root of the problem as difficult as possible.  This makes finding that ‘new normal” all the more challenging.  As the state of Illinois approaches the 9th month without a budget no one can disagree that we are drowning in uncertainty.

Greg Button, writes that “In the days, weeks, and months following a disaster people feel uncertain about real and perceived risks. The parties directly involved in a disaster as well as other organizations such as public agencies, governmental bodies, corporations, and the media [sic] release a cacophony of information and disputations that the affected population and the general public see as conflicting and confusing.”   

In a nutshell, people need to be honest with each other and be willing to make compromises about what is truly possible given the “new normal.”

Three:  Disasters reveal the inequities and power differences that are often overlooked in good times. 

Tony Oliver-Smith writes that “disasters are both socially constructed and experienced differently by different groups and individuals, generating multiple interpretations of the event (or) process  As disasters develop the complexity of the community impacted is highlighted through displays of cooperation and conflict, power and resistance. 

The harsh reality is that not everyone experiences or recovers from a disaster in the same way and communities and institutions look different after these traumatic events. 

In the long run, it’s not a matter of if, but when.  As a diverse community comprised of students, staff, faculty, administrators and members of Macomb and the surrounding region we will all feel the ramifications of this disaster. 

If we can learn anything from the lessons of other communities that have weathered the storm, it is that the more open and honest we are with each other and the more we work towards a common goal, the better our chances for survival are. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. 

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.