Floods, Oil Spills, Tornados: The Psychology of Resilience


Address by ROBERT L. VENINGA, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota; delivered to an Emergency Preparedness Conference, Fargo, N.D., June 22, 2010


I want to speak to you out of my heart. I know that academics generally don’t show emotion, but I feel passionate about being here and the information to be conveyed.


Several years ago I came to Grand Forks and Fargo, North Dakota to give a message of hope to citizens who had survived the flooding of the Red River Valley. And what a flood it was. Who can forget the images of 50,000 people being evacuated out of Grand Forks? Who can forget the images of flames engulfing eleven buildings and sixty apartment units before being extinguished? What about those hundreds of volunteers who descended into the Red River Valley filling sand bags, trying to hold back the torrent of water which in 1997 eventually caused 3.5 billion dollars of damage? 


After the waters receded, my assignment was to give a message of hope. But it was you who brought hope to me. I recall conversations with teachers concerned about the psychological impact of the floods on students. I remember visiting with nurses concerned about the health of citizens uprooted from their homes. Then too, there were business leaders who were determined to fight the floods and return their communities to solid economic ground. 


Wherever I turned I saw skilled, compassionate people caring about their neighbors in ways that I had never seen before. So when I say you taught me about resilience, these are not empty words. 


Since the Red River Flood of 1997, our country has been hit with incredible challenges. We have seen terrorists fly airplanes into New York City buildings. A category three hurricane destroyed entire communities in Louisiana. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil are flooding in the Gulf of Mexico with no end in sight. Most recently, a flash flood in Langley, Arkansas claimed twenty lives. These tragedies are not new to this audience. As first responders you are the initial ones present when a pandemic hits, a tornado roars, a flash flood descends. What I want to focus on today is the subject of resilience with the hope that the information will be helpful in your work. 


The first thing I can say with some certainty is this: Resilience is baked into the universe. Yes it is “baked in”. We are a remarkably resilient people. And nature itself is resilient. Some of you reside in northern Minnesota and will recall a searing fire which roared through the Boundary Waters in 2007. The fire torched 75,000 acres of land. Nothing was able to stop it. When the fire was finally extinguished, it had destroyed 160 cabins and charred beautiful forest land.


Yet within twenty-four hours, blades of grass could be seen in the charred remains. I kid you not: small, fragile blades of grass were sprouting through land which in some areas was still warm to the touch. It was like the Universe was proclaiming: You will not beat me. The same is true in Yellowstone National Park where you can see large strands of dead trees ravaged by lightning storms. Within these trees there are seedlings reaching towards the heavens. Again, at the heart of the Universe is a DNA that says: The land will be restored. 


The same will hold true for the communities in the Gulf of Mexico although I do not want to minimize the heartache of a people who may lose their way of life. Indeed, one can make a persuasive case that life will never be the same for those who call the Gulf their home. 


Nevertheless if you were to bet on the survivability of the animal and human species in the Gulf of Mexico, bet on the Universe. Why? History shows that the Universe has an incredible capacity to heal wounds and restore life. Thirty-one years ago the worst oil spill in North American history (up until now) covered 150 miles of Texas beach. Every day 30,000 barrels poured into the Gulf from Mexico’s Ixtoc1 offshore well in the Gulf of Campeche. The black goo obliterated practically ever living thing in its wake. As it washed ashore, marine life was reduced by 50% in some zones and in other zones by 80%. Small organisms called amphipods were killed off. Says Wes Tunnel, a marine biologist: “They (the amphipods) were practically wiped out. And if they didn’t recover it would have drastically affected the food chain, from small fish and crabs up to shorebirds and beyond.”


But the ocean sprung back. In an interview with McClatchy newspapers, Louis A. Soto, a deep-sea biologist said: “To be honest, considering the magnitude of the spill we thought the Ixtoc spill was going to have catastrophic effects for decades…but within a couple of years, almost everything was close to 100 percent normal again.”


Will this happen in the Gulf of Mexico? No one knows. There is unfortunately a tipping point where toxicity overpowers life. The Niger Delta for example, has endured the equivalent of a Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years. The songs of birds cannot be heard. No fish exist. The water is dead. Yet even here environmentalists say that with intensive restoration, the Niger Delta (Bodo, Nigeria) could flourish.


While the eventual outcome of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is unknown, this is certain: the people of the Gulf of Mexico will not go down without a fight. As Karolyn Miller Harvil of Navarre, Florida wrote in a letter to the editor of USA Today: “Those of us who depend upon the Gulf of Mexico for our livelihood thank God every day for allowing us to live here. We’re not anywhere close to calling it quits.”


To repeat: the world in which we live is remarkably resilient. Travis Clapp, a National Park Service resource manager who works at the Padre Island National Seashore is cautious about a quick recovery in the Gulf of Mexico. Nevertheless he notes: “Do I think the environment has an amazing resilience? Yes, I see it every day as we patrol the shoreline.” 


The second observation I want to make is that you as first-responders are an amazingly resilient group of people! Resiliency is in your DNA as well. I know many of you were on the front lines when the force of the Red River blew open the dikes. You were filling sand bags and offering encouragement (and muscle!) to others. Police officers and fire fighters were the first called when help was needed. Ambulance drivers rescued people in low-lying areas and shuttled residents to hospitals. Utility personnel worked double-shifts seeking to restore heat and light to people’s homes and places of businesses. 


We as a society owe you much—not only here in the Red River Valley but throughout the country. While I am saying thanks, I know that in this audience are volunteers who deserve recognition. One of my students at the University of Minnesota came to Grand Forks, ND in 1997. Reflecting on the experience he said: “I went shoulder to shoulder with other volunteers creating dikes, filling sand-bags, even baby-sitting kids. I was exhausted but it was an awesome experience. You discover who you are when you help those who suddenly have little.”


The third observation will not surprise anyone in this room: we are no way prepared for the tragedies that can befall us. It is amazing how we can’t “plug that damn whole” as the President Obama referred to the gushing oil one mile below the surface. The reason is simple: No one apparently gave much thought to what would happen if a rig collapsed and the blow-out preventer failed.


Ultimately, we cannot be a resilient people unless we get serious about what can go wrong in this country – beyond the notable efforts to counteract terrorism. There is ample evidence that our infrastructure is crying out for help whether it be our transportation, electrical, or sanitation systems. Our computer networks—the life blood of our society—are subject to hackers at home and abroad. And Public Health agencies throughout the country are woefully underfunded. 


It is time where we quit having these silly arguments over whether we should spend additional tax dollars to keep us safe at home. It is time that we insist that every community have an emergency preparedness plan that doesn’t sit on a government shelf but is practiced monthly. It is time we quit having these fractious conflicts between government officials. As one local official in Louisiana said: “I’m spending more time fighting the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. and the officials at BP, than I am fighting oil.” If we can’t pull together to face our potential threats, the threats will do us in. Perhaps not today or tomorrow. But if there is anything we have learned since the World Trade Tower tragedy, the unexpected will take place. We will need to be better prepared for the unthinkable. 


Now there is one last thing I need to say and it is this: it does, in fact, take a whole village to heal a community. Several weeks ago I had a remarkable visit to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the site of the Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. I asked a resident if the city has been changed. “Oh yes” she responded. “There is a scar that will never go away. But in many ways we are a better city. The violence did not destroy us. We pulled together.”


I went to the Oklahoma City National Memorial commemorating the lives of 168 victims including 19 children under age six. I was moved to tears. In front of a beautiful water display sit 168 empty chairs—one for each of the victims. Across the street there is an open-air chapel. An elderly man was sitting quietly. “I come here at least once a week to pray” he said. “I pray for the families. I pray for our community. We must never forget what happened.” Indeed, we must never forget.


It does take a community of concerned people to heal a community after a crisis. To members of the clergy – thank you for marshalling the resources of your congregations to provide clothing, food and hope to residents. To city administrators—thank you for the long hours in drafting plans, aligning personnel for the tasks ahead and fighting for dollars. To the Public Health Nurses—thanks for your compassionate competence in healing bodies and souls. 


There is one last group that needs recognition for the resilience of all communities rests on their shoulders. These are the “ordinary heroes.”


Who are the ordinary heroes? Let me take you back to New Orleans. When Katrina struck, two health care workers were in New Orleans attending a conference and were not able to leave the city. Consequently they had an eye-witness view of the destruction as well as acts of courage. Listen to their words for if this doesn’t convince you that we are a resilient people, nothing will. 


“We suspect the media will have shown you the ‘hero’ images of the National Guard, the troops and police struggling to help victims of the hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. They were the maintenance workers who used a forklift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretched over blocks to start the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over the mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen rescued folks stuck in elevators. Mechanics who helped hot wire any cord that could be found to ferry people out of the city. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome.


Most of these workers had lost their homes and not heard from members of their families. Yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that was not under water.”


These, my friends, are the ordinary heroes. As long as we have ordinary heroes, the threats of nature will not subdue us. And we will continue to be a resilient people.


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