The Grind

These fragments I have shored against my ruins. - T. S. Eliot

The national news trucks hit my neighborhood last fall, as some of you will remember. When Tropical Storm Irene caused severe flooding and destruction in surrounding communities, and particularly to many of my neighbor's farms, we were briefly in the news. Then, as is normal for any community that has experienced disaster, came waves of volunteerism and assistance, and then a gradual diminishing of attention and interest, and the slow, long process of reclamation and rebuilding. As spring came around, the houses in the village of Schoharie that listed, the stories of friends with severe depression and anxiety, people moving out of the neighborhood, farmers thinking about leasing their land for hydrofracking to make back their losses...those were the background of a disaster that most people don't remember happened.

The FEMA trailers that got people through the winter are being auctioned off, some of the renovations are done, the houses that weren't too bad are back and occupied and people are hoping the mold problems won't be too serious as the weather warms. We're back to a new normal - mostly. And the help and donations and volunteerism is winding down too. And now come the long term expenses - more folks on food stamps and unemployed, more depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses, no tax revenues from homes rendered unlivable. Our area will come back - but it won't come back the same, and it will be less able to bear the next disaster, whether local or collective.

There's nothing atypical about this - all over the country, in the last decade, there have been disasters - and their grinding aftermath in which the losses are not fully made good, where people fall through the cracks and find themselves a little bit behind...and a little more. Most of us remember the big disasters of this century so far - and there have been a lot of them. 9/11. Katrina. Most of us don't remember all the other places there were hurricanes and ice storms, floods and fires, tornadoes - we hear and are appalled for a bit, we send a check and good wishes, and then we don't think much about what happened.

For example, final estimates of the cost of the Joplin tornado are coming in at close to 3 billion dollars. I think, hearing those numbers, the implicit assumption is that the money will come from somewhere to rebuild - and a lot of the money does show up...eventually. Insurers will pay a lot of it - although if our local experience is any example, a lot of insurers will balk and look hard for loopholes, and lawsuits will be required to get some of it out. Half a billion will come from taxpayers. And some of the costs just won't get covered - things that slip through the cracks, and leave people trying to cover too many bases at once. It is the grind again, where everyone involved who survived gets a little poorer - or a lot poorer.

And this is a real piece of our future. It is hard to associate any given natural disaster with climate change, but we know that the aggregate experience of climate change is that the grind falls on all of us - falls on more and more of us as we wait for our storm or heatwave, drought or floods. It falls on more and more of us as it gets harder to get insurance, and the costs go up. It falls on more and more of us as the resources to cover the costs of each disaster get scarcer. The price tag for 2011 world natural disasters was greater than ever before in history.

That this is part of an emergent pattern was the judgement of the Stern Report, the clearest full analysis of the economic impact of climate change - that over the next century, unchecked climate change will take a bigger and bigger part of our budget for remediation and response, until it is consuming up to 20% of World GDP - a hit no economy can bear. The Stern Report considered ONLY climate change, however, not stagnant growth and rising energy costs.

The Grind affects all of us, whether the next storm hits you, your neighbor or far away. It affects us in complicated ways as patterns of relocation and refugeeism change, in our insurance premiums and our neighborhoods as houses sell or don't sell, in our families as we suddenly take in relatives escaping the latest disaster. Right now we can mostly absorb the costs, with only the expected pain - the little things that don't get fixed, the people who can't quite make it out of the quagmire. As we go along into a warming world with energy supply constraints, however, the grind keeps coming back, and its drag upon us gets heavier.

We were lucky - we lost a lot of plants, some fencing, a vehicle. Not our home, our animals or our farm. Most of the consequences for us have been in watching our friends and neighbors rebuild and helping where we can - we are caught only in the gentlest outer waves of the grind, not at the center. And yet, there's a drag, a pull, an effect that makes it hard to go forward. It seems every week we find that someone we depended on is selling up, no longer in business, thinking of moving on, struggling with things. You can feel it even out here on the periphery.

Our future is as much about rebuilding as it is about building, and about coming to terms (because we have functionally elected to do nothing about climate change) with The Grind, with the process of loss and imperfect reconstitution. We imagine that disaster comes and takes all away, and we must rebuild. But the reconstruction is never what was lost - and the resources for rebuilding become more tenuous, fragmentary and uncertain - are we rebuilding, or simply shoring fragments against the next ruin?


More like this

Christian Parenti has a really good article in TomDispatch about the reasons why Climate Change may change people'st thinking about the role of government: Global warming and the freaky, increasingly extreme weather that will accompany it is going to change all that. After all, there is only one…
Aaron Newton and I are starting out our first-ever Advanced Adapting-in-Place class, for people who have taken our previous course or who have been on the adaptation journey for a while. If you'd like to join us there are still spots available and world enough and time to join, so please email me…
A friend of mine who volunteered at a shelter in New York City told me this story over Thanksgiving.  The shelter she worked in responded to the range of people affected by the crisis.  Many of them, as always in a crisis, were those who were already struggling and marginalized - illegal immigrants…
The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn't hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster:…

My aren't we just the picture of optimism this morning -- is the heat wave getting to you already (at 10am it's already 26C here, 45km northwest of Toronto).

By Lara's Dad (not verified) on 21 May 2012 #permalink

Here in Minnesota the newspapers are reporting the anniversary of the tornado in North Minneapolis last year. Again, not enough $$ to deal with all the problems, trouble with insurance claims, and of course many folks forced to move on. This particular storm hit in one of our poorest neighborhoods. I think since the Katrina disaster, people no longer expect full government help in rebuilding. So sad. Last year there were mentions of this catastrophe on the news, but they quickly moved on to other disasters around the globe.

Even here in Texas, Katrina was a huge disater. We weren't ready for such a large amount of devastation. It gave us a wake up call. With hurricane season fast approaching and our rapidly changing climate, who knows what's coming at us next. I can only hope we're not hit in the face with something we're not ready for.

You left out the burden on our health; physical and mental. We've been buried with work this spring; had to do both April and May chores- in April. Bloody exhausting; can't do them well, not enough time, and it's depressing.

That's not going away.

Lost about half the apple crop; maybe more. Haven't gotten our own food garden in yet; too many other emergencies. Not one potato planted. Missed the good window of dry April weather, then it rained for 2 weeks. Going to be 86° tomorrow, they say. Still can't use our access road to the root cellar- it's still blocked by oaks downed by the tornado a year ago.

Yeah, it won't have to get too much worse, and it will be serious.

Not to undercut the seriousness of the weather disasters, but how much of our suffering is simply because our modern expectations are too big and great?

It was easier to rebuild a house years ago when it was a 1000 sq ft house for 5 people, with simple electrical and plumbing systems, if the latter systems even existed, less expensive and complicated furnishings, appliances, etc.

Nowadays rebuilding anything is horrendously expensive, time consuming, and complicated, what with all the expectations, government and insurance rules, and so on.

Years ago one wouldn't have had as much chance of the weather wiping out a family car or two if there wasn't one in the driveway to begin with, or if there was only one versus two, and so on.

The more we build up and reorganize our lives against Nature, the more there is outstanding for Nature to try to undo when She gets the chance.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 21 May 2012 #permalink

Notified by our independent insurance co. that our house insurance will go up $40 this year d/t costs of Joplin tornado. We are considering it another donation. A local family was there on that tragic day and lost their son.

I have seen Minot, and I have seen southern Nebraska along the river. I know someone who's still eating out of a microwave balanced on the toilet tank, due Katrina's visit to Miami Better known for what it did elsewhere). It's mind-boggling what people are dealing with, yet when you meet them at the store or post-office, it's "nice day, huh?"

Another thing you didn't mention (only so many things fit in a blog post!) is that if another disaster happens shortly after yours, FEMA, the news trucks, the charities and everyone else packs up and goes to the new disaster. There are so many resources to go around -- except for news networks, which have an unlimited supply of hot air. While it makes sense to apply to resources at the spot of greatest need, it doesn't help much if you are still in dire need when they roll out of town.

For that matter, the construction teams that go from disaster to disaster leave, too.

I'm inclined to agree with Stephen B., in that I think part of the pain people feel is modern expectations, and so is part of the cost. It's a professional roofer and a fancy SUV now, and that drives up the "cost" of a disaster.

This may seem perverse - and it may be, although I don't mean it to be - but, in a way, people who have been hit by one or more of these disasters are 'lucky' in that they have had that experience and know, therefore, that it can happen; often quite unexpectedly, and that it is possible to survive and perhaps become better prepared.

Where I live we're not particularly prone to impacts from tornadoes, hurricanes, floods or even earthquakes (albeit wildfires are a definite concern) so most folks go about their day-to-day stuff pretty much unconcerned about the effects from those things - except to note how lucky they are to live in such a place - and so they are generally unaware and unprepared.

However, since the area is drought-prone already and also will likely get a pretty strong jolt when the 'Big One' along the Pacific/Continental subduction joint lets go (as it will - someday), I think folks hereabouts are in for a real shock as climate change creeps up on us and the water goes away and are certainly in for a shock (no pun) when the 'Big One' hits.

The âgrinding aftermathâ is a phrase that describes our situation in New Zealand so well. 20 months on and thousands of earthquakes later, this disaster keeps on taking a toll, in mental illness, homelessness, and the constant frustrations experienced living in a broken city, fighting government bureaucracy and insurance companies. And yet any time it seems too much, we only have to look at the footage of that terrible black wave that bore down on the shores of Japan to realise we are the lucky ones.

By sealander (not verified) on 21 May 2012 #permalink

One of the ways to mitigate the effects of the grind is to build resilience into our lives. That could mean getting rid of all automobiles and relying instead on public transit, walking, and cycling for our transportation needs. This drastically reduces our transportation expenses, and also probably enables us to improve our overall health by getting around under our own steam.

Just one example of many of ways we can face the grind head-on with some chances of meeting success.

By John Andersen (not verified) on 21 May 2012 #permalink

To clarify:

I didn't mean getting rid of all automobiles in society-although that could be a great thing. I had more in mind single family solutions and single family resilience building.

By John Andersen (not verified) on 21 May 2012 #permalink