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Powering through compound disasters: Why thinking long term may save us now

William Heegaard leads Minneapolis-based FootprintProject.org and is a partner at Rent.Solar.
William Heegaard leads Minneapolis-based FootprintProject.org and is a partner at Rent.Solar.

It has been surreal to watch the COVID-19 crisis steamroll the Tennessee tornado, which left entire neighborhoods in ruins less than a month ago. Walking the streets of North and East Nashville, looking at living rooms with no walls and blue tarps covering roof tops, it feels as though years have passed. People recently flooded the streets to help, but now those streets are mostly empty; agencies struggle to safely coordinate the volunteers needed to clear debris and rebuild. With flood season already on Nashville’s doorstep and COVID-19 cresting, Music City reflects many communities around the world – reeling from one catastrophe just to face another, or two. We’re all trying to catch our breath, and every day more and more of us can’t.

It may sound callous, but it’s going to get worse. We’re just hitting month four of what will be a very, very long decade. This year’s hurricane season is forecasted to see “above-normal” activity (again), while Puerto Rico is still dealing with ongoing earthquakes. In large parts of California, this February was the driest on record (again) – “fire season is essentially becoming year-round.” And COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Short-term solutions, long-term problems

I’ve spent most of my adult life bouncing from one mass emergency to the next. Time and time again, I see the same thing: well-intentioned responders throwing short-term solutions at long-term problems. Pallets upon pallets of single-use water bottles delivered to communities with no recycling programs. Hundreds of generators burning tankers of gas after the fossil-fuel grid goes dark because of a wildfire, or hurricane, or in Nashville, a tornado. Now we’re going to do the same for the COVID-19 field hospitals, currently being set up in New York City’s Central Park, in  Riverside, California, and soon, all over the country. This time we’re going to spew diesel particulate right next to patients in severe respiratory distress.

When working a crisis, it can be easy to fall into the mental trap of urgency. People are dying! They need power, water, food, shelter, medicine, masks – get help, hurry! Our empathy instincts kick into high gear, our vision narrows, and we get to work. 

This very human reaction to mass suffering, that quick snap to send aid, is no doubt something to celebrate. We want to help. But when the crises start to compound, that reaction can be damaging, both to the responder and those in need. 

I learned this while driving an ambulance. When you let the patient’s emergency become your emergency, you make mistakes. They’re screaming, and you’re so desperate to help them feel better that your hands shake and you miss the IV. You can’t remember your protocols. You take a wrong turn back to the hospital, a route you’ve driven a thousand times. And when you’re responding to six or eight or 10 other patients that day, you spiral. 

Rushed reactions

I see this starting to happen on a community scale. We’re not responding, we’re reacting, rushing from one crisis to the next so fast that we never stop and ask, “Could we do this better?” 

It’s 2020. What do we want disaster response to look like in 2030? 2040? What type of aid will we be sending? If we’re going to do this over and over again, more rapidly than ever before, what tools do we need to build? 

In an era of constant emergency, I find these thoughts provide some space to breathe. Keeping the long game in mind offers respite from the short-term spiral. 

It won’t happen overnight, but Nashville will rebuild. Out of COVID-19 we will all rebuild. But now more than ever, it’s critical to think through how. Should we truck diesel (again) to the wildfires and PG+E shut offs in California this summer? Should we put power poles back up (again) if another hurricane knocks them down in Puerto Rico this fall? If not, what do we need to work toward to make our communities more resilient? For this decade, and the next, and the next? Focusing on solving that question doesn’t just give me hope, but helps settle my pulse amidst the panic. Looking toward the horizon can be healing. 

So, as you’re sewing your homemade pandemic mask and scrolling through one emotionally devastating headline after another, remember, we’re going to build back. Together, I think we can build back greener. 

William Heegaard leads Minneapolis-based FootprintProject.org and is a partner at Rent.Solar.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Glen Lacher on 04/07/2020 - 02:39 pm.

    Thank you Mr. Heegaard for promoting & doing the good work! Thanks too for this thoughtful & hopeful article.

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