One of the main themes of the Barnraiser in Newark during last summer was related to the experiences that we all go through when we are amidst a natural disaster. This gave us an opportunity to share stories among people working on different fronts, so that instead of having people bragging about their work saving lives, the Barnraiser craeted a safe space to be humans and to share our experiences on the field, as well as to admit our shortcomings and to think about what we as a society can improve in response to disaster response and relief.
The two biggest lessons that I took from this experience were that stories are capable of connecting the persons who are affected by natural disasters and those who are willing to help, but most importantly, that in the case of natural disasters, regions such as El Salvador are not much different from the United States in terms of how we experience and feel. The stories that I heard from the attendants to the event really resonated with my personal experiences in one of the most vulnerable country in the world.
There was a personal story that resonated the most with what I was hearing at the Barnraiser, which happened in 2009 during the Ida storm. During that year, there was a night on which in just four hours we had received the same amount of rain that we would be supposed to receive in a couple of months. This kind of experiences really makes or breaks your sense of social duty, as you have to make a huge decision of whether you should stay in and be safe, or go out and do something. It also teaches you that disaster response is quite similar to how flight attendants remind you that you have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, in order to support others in these situations, you have to keep yourself safe.
The next day after this experience I started connecting with a lot of friends who were expectant about what was happening to communities we had visited or built homes in during the past months or years. This led me to going with a group of friends to visit some communities and to hear their stories a couple of days laters. In order to do that, we had to leave our car parked on the side of the road and jump a broken bridge, and ask for a ride on top of a truck that was carrying people and food to distribute to the communities. Our experience allowed us to talk to people and not only see the actions of other organizations, but also their limitations and to be sympathetic to the fact that we can't do it all. We learned about how rivers can grow to swallow houses nearby in less than ten minutes from the stories of the people who lived in them, but we were also able to see the water marks on the walls, which served to convince a skeptic me on the spot. We also heard stories from families who had lost members and hadn't heard from them due to the water currents that swept their homes into the night. We saw houses upside down close to the beach, and learned about the despair of destruction that overtakes families in the area. News reports about tragedies took a whole new dimension since that day for us.
After that, I have had different experiences related to disaster response in different places and from different perspectives. In some cases, I have been right there on the field to support families, such as at the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In other cases, I've supported other organizations as by gathering supplies for the 2011 12-E tropical depression in El Salvador. More recently, I've been involved in a new type of experience, which is related to talking to families before these events occur, case on which our goal is to create awareness of the need for action, and having a personal experience to share with communities helps us resonate with them and with their own lives. Just three days ago we had an eureka moment with a urban community after six months of working with them, for them to finally admit that floodings were a big problem for them. It only took us the patience to be there for long enough to wait under rain together for them to say: "we don't like walking around here when all the alleys flood". We already knew this because we had seen it before, but we needed that this came from them, and experiencing a story together became an important step for this process.
Many years after the experience of Ida, a group of colleagues in El Salvador started working into what later became Reacción. Our experience in the subject of resilience has taught us that we need to continue going back to communities to assess situations and to discuss with affected individuals before offering solutions to their problems, and that this is an iterative, ongoing process that cannot stop, despite thinking that we have a good solution in our hands, simply because stories and personal experiences will never be less important than the most advanced technical skills.
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