Small towns that have survived natural disasters have learned something -- something critical to surviving "ordinary" times.
Recent natural disasters across rural America — tornadoes, the late January ice storm, the wind-driven remnants of Hurricane Ike, and floods along the Upper Mississippi — offer compelling reminders of our human frailty in the face of natural events. They also prove the need for strong, resilient human communities.
Disasters tend to draw people together. Residents of small towns and people spread out across the rural landscape work together because of shared, immediate needs. They know that because of their relative isolation and limited resources, it may take time before significant help arrives. So they take matters into their own hands: opening roadways, checking on neighbors, and doing whatever else needs to be done.
Immediately after a disaster, strong people face the crisis, working together to make sure life goes on. But once things get back to normal, folks usually go back to their everyday patterns. Working independently, crossing paths at the coffee shop, football game, or a meeting of the Lions Club, they resume individual lives in a community setting.
In the long run, a culture of individualists is particularly troublesome in rural areas, where people need to work together to save their towns and themselves. Disengagement stagnates rural communities and can even bring about their demise. In fact, the inability or unwillingness of people to work together has triggered a quiet, but ongoing disaster. It is true that urban areas often hold appeal for rural youth. It is also true that in the current economy, there’s little incentive for people to stay in rural areas. But what about the people who have remained? Are they powerless in the face of major changes, both interior changes and forces generated outside their towns? Or, are people the most significant and underused resource that a community has to create new opportunities?
• By now, most people know about Greensburg, Kansas, as they should. The small town was destroyed May 4, 2007 by a tornado. Afterward, the city counciil voted to rebuild Greensburg as a model of energy efficiency. With the guidance and leadership of GreenTown, a community-owned organization, Greensburg is on its way to fulfilling that goal. The grassroots group is working “side-by-side with city and county officials, business owners and local residents to incorporate sustainable principles into their rebuilding process.”
• Clarksville, Missouri, overcame flooding in the early 1990s and
again last year to take advantage of its Mississippi River vantage
point between St. Louis and Hannibal. The town, whose population peaked
in the late 1800s, now has about 500 residents and is slowly gaining
population again. Residents
are working together to promote nature tourism along the river, including
eagle watching. As well, artists, potters, glass blowers, jewelry
designers, antique dealers, furniture makers, and specialty craftsmen
are adding to the local economy.
• Residents of Havana,
Illinois, continue to struggle against a declining population. Yet, the
city, located along the Illinois River, has worked to improve
the quality of life by building a riverfront park and renovating its
downtown. Like Clarksville, Havana is located in a prime eagle-watching
area near a national wildlife refuge. The city has a port authority to
take advantage of its commercial position on the river. Havana is a
work in progress, but its leaders have enlisted community support for
well over a decade. Community members recognize that they are working
for the future in the face of daunting odds.
Are these towns made up of entirely selfless residents? No. They are places where enough people have willingly worked
together to overcome adversity. Cooperation matters.
Change does cause some rural places to die. But communities can and do persist in the face of disasters — natural and human-made. They survive because individuals share some of their rights with others to strengthen the place for everyone who lives there. Individuals take responsibility for helping others in the community to prosper. People invest in one another.
Disasters remind us that we are not all powerful and that we can work together to sustain ourselves in the short run to meet the crisis. Creating and maintaining long run sustainability is a different matter. What if we were able to remember what we have learned in facing emergencies? These are teachable moments.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.