Expectation and Hope
By Sam Mamet, CML executive director, and Aimee Voth Seibert, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
When disasters upset the social fabric of a community, local leadership is needed more than ever. As municipal leaders, you have community connection, knowledge, and partners; you are the person people will look to during recovery.
So how do you take that attention and use it to promote community well-being? It is a fine line – and a long road - to walk between setting reasonable, achievable expectations and fueling people’s hope.
Research from disaster settings tells us that when we promote safety, calming, a sense of self, being connected, and a feeling of hope, the resilience of your citizens can be restored.
Your greatest actions as a local leader are what you say and what you personally do.
The recovery phase of a disaster largely means that the original threat has passed. But consequences of disasters can cause upsetting changes in people’s day-to-day life. Even seemingly positive changes can create stress because they force people into unfamiliar situations.
Someone who has never had thousands of dollars on hand before an emergency might have just been given a FEMA grant. How will they know how to manage that much money in a way that helps them long-term versus spending it all now on things they’ve never had? There are many other resources that become available during emergencies that people may have never encountered. Recognize what is different for your citizens and give them support for those changes.
Another way to promote a sense of safety is to under promise and over deliver. It can be tempting to promise everything will be back to normal if not better, but recovery timelines are full of hiccups and setbacks. If people are thinking too far down the line, the time between the promise of recovery and actually getting there will be discouraging. Reasonable expectations are cultivated by naming the interim recovery steps along the way. It’s like painting a masterpiece. After one day, you don’t have the whole landscape finished, but you can see that the barn in the corner is beautiful and done. Try to avoid backtracking on your promises. Instead, set timelines and expectations with lots of milestones to celebrate.
The stress of long term recovery can stir up strong feelings. It can be hard as the local public official to have those feelings directed at you. Do your best not to shy away. Normalize people’s reactions to these abnormal events. Many will feel better once they feel heard and will appreciate the reassurance that their experience is to be expected. When people are worried and afraid – the worst things you can do are pretend they’re not or tell them they shouldn’t be. So, acknowledge and honor how they’re feeling first, and then include the good news you have as follow up. People won’t care about the good news you know until they know that you care.
Once you’ve validated their feelings, people will be more ready to listen. Give people
simple instructions and information. Following disasters, a lot of different groups ask community members to remember many different things. Do your best to keep it simple.
When there are questions you don’t have the answer to, don’t feel rushed to respond. Tell them when you’ll have more information, and get answers you don’t have. Not only is it good policy not to make up what you don’t know, but promising information and then delivering demonstrates that you follow through. People will generalize that trust in your leadership to other areas of recovery.
Nobody exposed to a disaster is unaffected, including you. You don’t have to be Superman; it’s probably best not to be. Instead, treat your constituents as partners in recovery. Help them get connected, not just to you, but to each other.
Be involved – don’t hover above the recovery. Stay close to your community. Provide forums for them to be heard, to feel supported and to sense shared community experiences. Recognize what they think is important and spend time with their “what ifs” If you don’t have those conversations, they won’t just go away. Someone else with less investment in your community’s well-being will fill the void.
This is not the time for politics, but governing. People want their leaders aligned and working together, not bickering. The community will doubt the whole recovery process if leaders are perceived as not getting along.
So communicate endlessly, even about the unknown and the less-than-good. Panic and anger get stronger when there is no information and when there is conflicting information.
Individual and Community Efficacy
One of the cardinal rules of Disaster Behavioral Health is never do for someone what they can do for themselves. Disasters upset people’s sense of control in their own lives, so wherever we can, it is important to return that control to them. Leaders walk with their communities, accompanying and cheering their recovery, but individuals and community groups are the ones who get back to their feet.
Promote the resources that are there for survivors. Foster that sense of everyone in the community working together for the common good. As you keep connected as a member of the community yourself, walk the walk in setting reasonable expectations and taking care of yourself.
Don’t shy away from talking about mental health and well-being. As a trusted community member and leader, you can do great good in reducing the stigma around mental health by simply mentioning the organizations and resources that are there to support survivors. Get to know your local community mental health center and their disaster behavioral health teams.
Most of all, keep all information flowing. Give people a menu of meaningful things to do that will allow them to make good decisions for their families.
You are the head cheer leaders. Think Rudy Guiliani following Sept. 11. Whatever your politics, we can recognize the benefit of his presence to New Yorkers as they recovered. As the local leader, you encourage them through tough times and highlight accomplishment where it happens. How?
- Show them what recovery markers your city meets
- Identify the next achievement you’re working toward.
- Help them set reasonable expectations by describing the recovery roadmap.
- Help them see their own accomplishments and resilience.
At the summer CML conference, I moderated a riveting "Meeting Of The Minds" session with Colorado Springs Councilmember Jan Martin and Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan on how municipal elected officials help their cities and towns heal after a serious traumatic event.
I could not help but reflect upon that conversation last summer as I ponder what communities continue to go through in the aftermath of the September floods.
I do want to acknowledge the able assistance of Aimee Voth Seibert of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for helping me understand your role as community leaders in healing a community after any sort of traumatic event. I want to thank Sarah Werner of CDPHE for connecting me with Aimee. Most of this blog I credit to Aimee, and I think there is a lot of useful information to ponder.
How are you helping your community heal during this holiday season and into the new year?
“Positive Coping for Disasters”- a guest blog with suggestions for handling anniversaries, holidays, and other special days after a disaster, written originally for the summer following the Aurora Theater Shooting and the High Park and Waldo Canyon Fires
“Making the Most of the Holiday Season” - American Psychological Association
“Disaster Recovery: A Local Government Responsibility” - International City/County Management Association
“An Elected Official’s Policy Guide for Disasters and Emergencies” - Colorado Office of Emergency Management
Long-Term Community Recovery Planning Process - Federal Emergency Management Agency
National Disaster Recovery Program Database “Government – Local”