Community Resilience: When the Love in the Air Is Thicker than the Smoke

*** Note: this program was produced prior to the recent earthquake in Puerto Rico, and focuses on how communities are still recovering from Hurricane Maria. ***

With climate-driven disasters becoming the new normal, building resilience is the grail. Communities around the world are developing models created out of practical necessity. We hear on-the-ground stories from two different communities building resilience in the wake of serial disasters. Estrella Santiago Pérez and her innovative community rights organization ENLACE have helped organize a collection of marginalized neighborhoods in San Juan, Puerto Rico to overcome the twin catastrophes of Hurricane Maria and a failed government. And far away in the fire-ravaged communities near California’s relatively well-off wine country, Trathen Heckman helped lead the nonprofit grassroots group Daily Acts to build a resilience network from the ground up with engaged citizens action, civil society groups and Sonoma County government agencies.

Featuring

  • Estrella Santiago Pérez, J.D., is the Environmental Affairs Manager for the Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña, a groundbreaking urban land trust project, which has organized a large, hitherto disenfranchised “informal” settlement in a polluted section of San Juan, Puerto Rico, into an exemplary self-governing entity working to clean its environment and develop a vibrant, resilient, socially just, sustainable community.
  • Trathen Heckman, founder/Director of the NGO, Daily Acts, serves on the boards of Transition U.S. and the California Water Efficiency Partnership and is on the advisory board of the Norcal Community Resilience Network. Trathen lives in the Petaluma River Watershed where he grows food and medicine.

Credits

  • Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
  • Written by: Monica Lopez and Kenny Ausubel
  • Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
  • Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
  • Producer: Teo Grossman
  • Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris

Music

Our theme music is co-written by the Baka Forest People of Cameroon and Baka Beyond, from the album East to West.  Find out more at globalmusicexchange.org.

Additional music was made available by:

This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.


Transcript

NEIL HARVEY, HOST: The Seven Sisters Oak Trees in Louisiana are famous for their ability to withstand even the fiercest hurricanes. How do they do it? Their roots grow together to weave an entire community of resilience. As a community, the Seven Sisters Oaks can withstand huge shocks.

It’s an apt metaphor for the rising movement to build community resilience from the ground up. 

Resilience enhances our ability to adapt to dramatic changes. It’s the capacity of both human and ecological systems to absorb severe disturbance yet still retain their basic function and structure. 

And – in the face of radical climate disruption and ecological collapse, structures and institutions can also just crumble. This destruction also releases tremendous amounts of bound-up energy and resources for reorganization and renewal. Novelty emerges. Small changes can have big influences.

With climate-driven disasters becoming the new normal, communities are caught in the collision between the state of nature and the nature of the state. They’re developing models created out of practical necessity and founded in greater self-reliance and self-determination.

In this program, we hear on-the-ground stories from two very different communities building resilience in the wake of serial disasters. To overcome the twin catastrophes of HurricaneMaria and a failed government, Estrella Santiago Perez and her innovative community rights organization ENLACE have helped organize a collection of marginalized neighborhoods in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

And far away in the fire-ravaged communities near California’s relatively well-off wine country, Trathen Heckman helped lead the nonprofit grassroots group Daily Acts to weave a resilience network from the ground up where engaged citizens and civil society groups coordinated with badly strapped Sonoma County government agencies.

This is, “Community Resilience: When the Love in the Air is Thicker than the Smoke.”

I’m Neil Harvey. I’ll be your host. Welcome to The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.

The most ferocious storms we experience on Planet Earth are rated Category 5. Only 35 have been recorded since the 1930s, but in 2017, two Category 5’s formed back-to-back over the Atlantic and bore down on vulnerable Puerto Rico with the fury of the new abnormal. Storm surges flooded communities and knocked out power and most services to over a million households, while slamming neighboring islands, too.

The storm surge poured sewage into Puerto Rico’s waterways and reservoirs, forcing many residents to bathe and drink from contaminated water sources. It took nearly a full year before power was fully restored to all communities. Yet a year later, tens of thousands of residents continued to live with tarps for roofs, while lacking the most basic medical facilities and public services.

According to Estrella Santiago Pérez who co-directs the ENLACE community organization, an even worse underlying disaster compounded the climate-fueled storms. She spoke at a Bioneers conference.

ESTRELLA SANTIAGO PÉREZ: Disaster is not only climate events, it’s not only the hurricane, it’s also government disaster, it’s also human-made disasters. And when we talk about disasters, we can not only focus on the event itself, we have to focus on what’s the infrastructure.

Imagine yourself, if right now happens a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake and you lose energy, you lose water, what would you do? How would you recover from that? We need to start thinking about that, because it happened in the U.S. soil, in Puerto Rico.

Just to give you an idea, Hurricane Maria caused—it wasn’t the disaster itself, it was everything that happened afterwards. We have over 4,000 deaths. And I include in that number the father of a coworker who was dependent on oxygen, he couldn’t get a diagnosis because all of the medical offices were… [TEARING UP] Sorry…

All of the medical offices were closed because we had no electricity, so he couldn’t get a proper diagnosis in time. And the oxygen, you know, it depends on electricity. And then you had all the neighbors had electric generators with fumes that affected his health, and he died. And like him, we had thousands of people that died. All we got in response was a paper towel tossed at us. And we are U.S. citizens.

HOST: In truth, Puerto Ricans are at best second-class citizens because the island is a territory of the United States, not a state. With no vote in Congress, it’s essentially a colony, and its people have a long history of activism against this injustice. In recent years, Puerto Rico’s beleaguered economy became the object of both severe so-called “austerity measures” imposed by the US government, and in turn a juicy target for rich hedge funds looking to exploit its vulnerability. Sometimes called “disaster capitalism,” it describes a vicious cycle of starving the island’s budget, slashing services, and capitalizing on the twin disasters of economic distress and extreme weather events.

The people said no. After 15 historic days of massive protests, as the New York Times reported in 2019,  “From the ruins of the storm rose a grassroots movement that unseated a governor.” What emerged is called “la revolucion de verano” – the “summer revolution.”

It’s easy to see why. Despite an estimated $90 billion dollars in storm damage, by the end of 2019 Congress had allocated a paltry 25% of the desperately needed aid. Simultaneously, the Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA – denied aid to over 330-thousand households. Even just applying for aid was an often impossible hurdle.

ESP: FEMA… I mean, to apply for FEMA assistance you have to have a phone or a computer. So imagine, even I – that I am privileged enough to not be affected by the hurricane, I lived for over 80 days without electricity. So imagine our communities, having to apply for the only assistance they can have, because they have no insurance, through a phone or a website when we didn’t have any telecommunications. So we had to set up centers with the help of different organizations that donated solar power, and we helped over 600 families fill out their applications.

One of the anecdotes I like about this is we have a newspaper come by to ask people about how they felt after the hurricane, and they asked a kid: What’s the best thing about having a community center near to your house that has solar energy? And you would have think that he was going to say, I can play with my Gameboy, I can charge my cell phone or use my computer. He said…[TEARING UP] Sorry… He said, The best thing is that I can talk to my father that lives in the Dominican Republic. And he hadn’t talked with his father for two months because there was no electricity or phone.

HOST: The Summer Revolution birthed “people’s assemblies” – citizen groups that had a different vision for Puerto Rico: adequate affordable housing – localized renewable energy – protection for their neighborhoods against huge commercial developers – support for local food producers to offset reliance on offshore suppliers  – and a host of other issues. They called it “auto-gestion” self-management, and it was not entirely new.

Residents tapped into the resilience networks that had already been built over years of organizing around the Caño Martín Peña – the channel that runs through the San Juan Bay Estuary. Dense neighborhoods had formed along its banks since the Great Depression when unemployed sugar cane workers filled mangroves with debris to create foundations for their homes along the channel’s edge. Despite decades of marginalization, the resilient community they’d built together provided critical relief to residents during the first months after the hurricane.

ESP: So they took the lead, and during those first months we managed to remove vegetative material that was blocking the access to houses, and which posed a very high mobilized over 600 volunteers, including people from the U.S. that didn’t even know anything about Puerto Rico and flew down just to help us. We received a lot of donations. Our office became a center for distributing donations throughout the communities. We have community leaders like Doña Gladys. She lost her roof, cooking for people in her communities, even when herself, she suffered damage for the hurricane.

We had over 800 tarps distributed. The first tarps that were distributed were donated by different organizations, and distributed by the same residents, and even installed by the neighbors and other volunteers. And we delivered over 1,700 goods. And this is critical. Puerto Rico is an island. We import over 85% of everything that we eat. Imagine having a hurricane, having supermarkets with no food and not being able to have food come by the US, and then as a US territory, we have the Jones Act, which means that everything that goes to our country has to go first through the US. So if you have a country close by like the Dominican Republic that want to provide aid, they have to go all the way to the U.S. and transfer that into a U.S. ship and go back into Puerto Rico. And that caused a lot of delays among other issues. So definitely there were weeks in which families had no food, no electricity, no water.

So definitely Hurricane Maria show us that having an organized community is critical for disaster response, especially in areas that are marginalized or that are forgotten by the entities. Community resilience is happening right now. This is not new. Our communities are very resilient. Marginalized communities have been resilient, even from before the development of this new concept, because they have had to, because nobody has been there to help them.

HOST: Like other low-income and marginalized communities that have learned to be resilient out of necessity, the organizational wisdom carried by Caño Martín Peña shows three keys to community resilience.

First, social ties save lives. Building community and social capital creates enduring relationships that preserve cultural memory, in the same way that seeds regenerate a forest after a fire.

Second, government usually works best when it’s closest to the ground. In other words, empower local communities to solve their own problems.

Third, resilience arises from decentralized infrastructures, such as increasing localized clean energy grids and food production.

Well before Hurricane Maria, Estrella Santiago Perez and her neighbors safeguarded their community from displacement by establishing a 200-acre Land Trust involving about 2,000 residents. It’s the only one in Puerto Rico, and it won the 2016 United Nations World Habitat Award. 

ESP: It was a conversation with the residents of these communities, which are approximately 26,000 residents, about what way they could protect themselves from gentrification. And basically in 2004, a law was created that creates the land trust, and through that law, over 200 acres of public lands that were owned by different agencies and in which thousands of families were living historically were transferred into that land trust.

So the land trust exists as a nonprofit with perpetual life, and it manages all of these 200 acres of land for the benefit of the communities. So, you know, each family living in the land trust lands are members of the land trust and are actively participating in the decision-making processes.

And the benefit of this land trust is that if there’s a family that needs to be relocated because they’re leaving any of the projects that are going to be implemented in the communities, they have the ability and the right to choose to move within their own communities in lands of the land trust. So that way we are preventing a speculation of the land, and we’re also preventing displacement and gentrification of our communities.

So it was a process. It was definitely something that was discussed and designed by their own communities as part of that citizen participation and empowerment process. But the idea is that this land trust can become a pilot project or a model for other communities that are also facing similar issues of displacement and gentrification. Community members of the land trust, have traveled to places like Brazil to speak to other communities about the benefits of the land trust.

HOST: The land trust has been crucial in protecting families from displacement and gentrification. Many families on the island don’t have the funds to rebuild, and often disaster recovery funds can’t be used in areas prone to flooding. Some residents also lack clear title to the land that their families have inhabited since the early 1900’s. These circumstances can push families out and make way for speculators to swoop in and buy property at fire-sale prices.

Another crisis for Caño Martín Peña communities that’s compounded by climate disruption is toxic flooding resulting from blocking the free flow of water. The combination of untreated sewage and stagnant waters has developed into a recurring cycle of flooding events and environmental health harms for Caño residents. Even before Hurricane Maria hit, Puerto Rico already had the worst rate of drinking water violations of any state or territory in the nation, along with 18 Superfund sites, including the former US Navy bomb testing range on the island of Vieques. Just add water…

ESP: What we’re trying to do is use the funds that have been assigned for Puerto Rico for disaster recovery. The communities organized themselves and designed a plan which includes all of the projects that are needed for them to fix all of these environmental issues.

We’re working together in the implementation of these projects. Opening the channel. We have a channel that’s blocked, so we have to restore that tidal connection. But we also have to connect the families that lack a sewer system to a proper and adequate infrastructure. And we have to also fix the stormwater system in our communities because it’s carrying combined storm and raw sewage discharges

And one of the main components of this comprehensive development plan is relocating families that are living right now within the Caño Martín Peña into decent safe and sanitary houses within the communities, because we don’t want to have a displacement of communities, like happens in other areas. What we want is to be able to provide housing opportunities for families within their own communities for those families that need to be moved due to the different projects that are contained within the comprehensive development plan.

And this relocation process is done with a relocation committee that’s comprised by community leaders, so it’s a very sensible process.

There can’t be a just and equitable disaster recovery if you’re not including the communities in the decision-making processes, and in the solution process. So we have to have them engaged.

HOST: Estrella Santiago Perez says it’s critical to empower communities to hold relief agencies accountable for their actions. Yet in reality, facing a failed state, they’re really empowering themselves – again, “auto-gestion” – self-management.

When we return, the biggest and most destructive fires to hit California test the resilience of community networks built over time by local organizations, and out of the ashes, they’re forging what they call “disaster collectivism…”  I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature.

You can see and hear more from the guests in this program, and explore more Bioneers radio programs, podcasts and videos online at bioneers.org. For information on attending the National Bioneers Conference, please visit bioneers.org or call 1-877-BIONEER.

TRATHEN HECKMAN: And so how I woke up to the fires was Chris and Hanna are really good friends of mine. We used to share land together, and the­y moved to Santa Rosa about six months before. And so I hear this pounding on the door at three in the morning, and we’re a little confused as to why they’re standing there. And they have their cat. And they basically made it out of their house with just their cat, and got in their cars. And they got to some friend’s house in Coffey Park, and they stayed there for a short amount of time when they recognized they all had to leave. And they basically had to leave their cars in the street and just run.

I remember, kind of the most terrifying thing to me was so much devastation happened so quickly, and I was listening to the TV and I hear the head of fires for the state on the TV, and he basically says it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. And people – we just didn’t even have a reference for what that meant.

HOST: Trathen Heckman founded and directs a sustainability organization in Sonoma County, California called Daily Acts, which works to embed resilient systems in local communities. In 2017, the Tubbs fire ravaged the region — at the time, it was the largest wildfire in California history. Nearly two-hundred fifty separate fires raged out of control. Trathen Heckman spoke on a panel at a Bioneers Conference…

TH: The next morning, a nonprofit organization, lots of volunteer staff, we wanted to plug in and we wanted to do stuff. But we didn’t really know – I actually had the cell phone number of the woman who heads the health department for our county, which is emergency services. I called her up. I’m like, Ellen, what do we need to do? Where do we plug in? How can we be of help? They, of course, were overwhelmed doing a phenomenal job but just totally buried. So most people in organizations were on their own to figure out what do we do, how do we plug in, how do we make a difference.

HOST: Once again, a community was trapped between the state of nature and the nature of the state – or more precisely, an overwhelmed state. And once again, social ties saved lives.

When disaster hits, “first responders” are just as likely to be friends and neighbors as they are to be paramedics or police. Daily Acts was already deeply embedded in the community. So, when the fire hit, the group activated its networks. They used tried-and-true community organizing methods, going door to door to check on people’s needs. They used social media wherever they could find power and internet connectivity. But there was also a spirit in the air…

TH: People were just organizing and stepping up and doing what they could, but in addition to the organizing that was happening, this meme started to spread – The love in the air is thicker than the smoke. And you started to see it everywhere, and it was really representative of the level of community spirit.

I’ve been an organizer for a long time, and I’ve never felt anything like the generosity and the courage, and the openness, and the creativity, and the inclusivity that we saw that occurred during the fire. So in this ultimate tragedy, it is phenomenal how people come together and step up.

HOST: The fires scorched over 245,000 acres through eight California counties. But the 2017 fire season would be eclipsed just one year later by the largest and deadliest fire season on record, which included the cataclysmic Northern California Camp Fire.

With a plan already in place to build more resilient systems before the next disaster hit, the partnerships Trathen Heckman and Daily Acts had forged with hundreds of groups and local government agencies paid off.

TH: And so for a lot of years we’ve been building the social infrastructure and the cross sector/cross issue collaborations in our community, which is really critical. The things you could do in advance of a disaster, to build relationships with your agencies, with your cities, with your other partners, your schools and churches, because I did a presentation at a climate conference – I got to sit next– so the guy who’s the head of emergency response for our county, and he basically said, “We’re very limited on staff. In a real disaster we’re protecting infrastructure. Most people are on their own.” And that’s going to be true in most places. And so for the community to get more connected and skilled on the ground, but then also build those relationships with agencies is super important, so when disaster does hit, then you have a lot in place.

HOST: Unlike Puerto Rico, Sonoma County is comparatively affluent. Like Puerto Rico, it too faces gaping inequities. The consequences of disasters cascade along pathways defined by race, class, ethnicity, and immigrant status – so an equitable recovery requires a participatory process that’s inclusive of all community members.

How do communities ensure that everyone has a seat at the planning table?

TH: The fires came on Sunday, and what about Saturday’s problems? What about the equity crisis? What about the housing crisis? We’re losing people from our communities, and so how to keep our working class community there – people who work in restaurants, our organic farmers and folks who’ve been living their values in stewardship but don’t make a lot of money. There’s a huge risk right now to losing a lot of the people that really make our community what it is, and the economy. The fires came on Sunday, and what about Saturday’s problems? What about the equity crisis? What about the housing crisis? We’re losing people from our communities, and so how to keep our working class community there – people who work in restaurants, our organic farmers and folks who’ve been living their values in stewardship but don’t make a lot of money. There’s a huge risk right now to losing a lot of the people that really make our community what it is, and the economy.

Basically within the first week, a number of people got together from, again, government business agencies and launched an organization called SOCO Rises, which is about placing equity at the center and bringing community voice into the response and recovery process.

At the same time, a number of grassroots organizations got together and trying to think of instead of disaster capitalism, what does disaster collectivism look like. And so a lot of the organizations didn’t even have budgets, and we not only hosted a fundraiser, but then we started the Just and Resilient Future Fund to kind of flip the script on who raises money and who distributes money to get the grassroots at the table, both bringing in resources and deciding how they’re directed.

And one of the critical things is that for people to get back in their houses, you have to have your landscape designed according to new water and sustainability requirements, and it feels like kind of the straw that broke the back for folks. And we can install these more drought and deluge and climate resilient landscapes.

We’ve got a big circle of concern and circle of influence. Like, start with your health. Start where you live – rent, own, apartment, whatever. Start with your neighbors. Building household and neighborhood scale community resilience, that’s a cornerstone of more resilient communities, of building that social cohesion. From there we can get civically engaged and we can create a bigger transformation. And so my last comment is just, you know, at the end of the day to take heart, and take part, and take action.

HOST: Trathen Heckman and Estrella Santiago Pérez know that like the Seven Sisters Oak Tree, our greatest resilience dwells in community – and the way we’ll hold it together is to hold it – together.

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