Four Months After

Porcelain bathroom sinks. Yellow fibreglass insulation. 

Four months after Hurricane Irma, the debris from the storm is still piled up beside US 1, the highway running the length of the Florida Keys. All the stuff is twisted, torn, bent, cracked, crushed, sodden, mangled, gutted, or generally busted.

Nylon rope. Life jackets.

I don’t suppose I’m seeing all the debris from Irma. As we drive by, front-end loaders drop buckets-full of the stuff into dump trucks, so I figure some has already been carted off for disposal.

Sheet metal. White plastic pails.

Some stuff is still scattered through the bushy swamps adjacent to the highway. State workers laboriously drag it out to the roadside piles.

Tangled tree branches. Sawn tree trunks.

Given the extent of the damage that was reported, I’m also guessing that some stuff still sits on properties damaged by the storm but not visible from the highway.

Cardboard boxes. PVC pipe.

I’ve never been in a hurricane zone before, and the amount and diversity of debris is breathtaking, overwhelming, and awesome — all in the worst way.

Kitchen cupboards. Sofas.

These days, recycling is practically a sacred duty, and careful sorting is essential to that effort. If anything speaks to the difficulty of such a clean-up it is this: The piles of debris I’m seeing are hopelessly jumbled. And I can’t imagine that anyone cares.

Black garbage bags, full. White plastic sheeting.

Nothing in my life has led me to disaster zones, and the scale of the debris that I can see is hard for me to take in, never mind the damage that I can’t see from the highway. The money, logistics, persistence, and backbreaking effort required to dig out is almost unimaginable. Not to mention the time. I mean, it’s been four months and they’re still at it. Incredible.

Mattresses. Mobile homes.

Incredible as it seems, though, my small glimpse into the recovery work from Hurricane Irma is consistent with two other data points.

Orange traffic cones. Tires.

In 2014, we visited New Zealand. Christchurch had been a fixture on the standard tour, but not since the 2011 quake. Our tour guide had gone to school there, and told of going back and not even recognizing the street where she’d lived. Even after three years, there were still parts of the city where municipal sewers had not been fully restored.

Chunks of styrofoam. Chunks of drywall.

In 2007, a friend visited Assisi. Ten years after their major earthquake, she saw a new path beaten down over broken steps that had never been repaired, and debris on the narrower side streets and paths that had never been fully cleaned up.

White plastic lawn chairs. Sidewalk blocks.

How long does it take to recover from a disaster? Four months? Three years? Ten years? It’s an impossible question: Disasters vary greatly by type, scale, and scope; countries and local communities vary greatly in their resources and resilience.

Fibreglass roofing sheets. Lumber.

But however long it takes for an easily accessible community in a rich, developed country, how much longer must it take for a remote community in a poor, undeveloped country? How much longer in the face of ongoing disasters: earthquakes or hurricanes that hit every few years? And how much longer when the damage is inflicted not by nature but by a civil war that also trashes the civil institutions responsible for recovery?

Paper cement bags. Wooden pallets.

Four months after Hurricane Irma, the debris from the storm is still piled up beside US 1.


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10 Responses to Four Months After

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Perhaps we need to expand the notion of PTSD to cover regions as well as people. How long does it take an ecosystem to recover from an earthquake, a flood, a war? And yet the fact is that they do recover. A friend of mine says that the coherent theme of the whole earth is Healing — regardless of the scale of the disaster, nature immediately starts the process of healing.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Yes, even in spite of our occasional hysteria . . . 🙂 Not that that excuses our sloppiness.

  2. Tom Watson says:

    It’s hard to imagine going through that. And the destruction that severe weather can cause. We lived in Sudbury from 1969 to 1971. In the summer of 1970 a tornado ripped through the area. A few days later I drove north west of the city where the storm had been the worst. In a forest area it was as if somebody had drawn a path through the trees. Straight lines on either side of the path where the tornado had rushed through.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yes, there’s more than one way for wind to wreak havoc and tornadoes are scary. I saw similar damage after a tornado went through Edmonton in 1987.

  3. Then there is Puerto Rico…

    But I look at the flattened devastation of WWII cities then and now — where do you start picking up the pieces? one brick at a time, I guess. Seems insurmountable.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – It does seem insurmountable. It usually isn’t. Your mention of bricks, though, led to another bit of synchronicity, though, yesterday’s blog post by a friend included this quote from Dorothy Day: “The sense of futility is one of the greatest evils of the day.… People say, “What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?” They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment.”

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – When I was in the Caribbean coordinating Canadian disaster relief on Montserrat after Hurricane Hugo, I was amazed to see corrugated metal roofing sheets wrapped like saran wrap around trees, bigger rocks and even some sign posts that for some reason had survived the hurricane.

  5. Then, there are the disasters created when drugs and alcohol rip through nervous systems, when the so-called medicines damage the most important muscles in the body, and when not one person in any of the “helping” professions has any idea what to do. And, when you have figured out how to reverse that damage, who will listen to the words of a simple remedy?

    Yet, once someone does listen and tries the remedy and finds that it works, the word spreads. And another journey begins of teaching those who never felt the disaster to understand the survivors and to allow them to reintegrate into the luckier parts of the culture. I appreciate the perspective of Dorothy Day. Thank you for quoting her.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Many metaphors today. Thanks to you (& Jim T) for sharing other ways of seeing this phenomenon.

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