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Creative response nets results

Creativity has become a catalyst for healing in many post-disaster communities.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | June 4, 2006


"Now people are talking about all-hazards planning as if they just remembered it."

—Judith Cichowicz


Creativity has become a catalyst for healing in many post-disaster communities.

In Mississippi, artist H.C. Porter is working on a series of paintings called "Backyards and Beyond: Mississippians and Their Stories." While Porter has focused her work for 15 years on Mississippi, the post-disaster scene is something new, said Karole Sessums, the artist's director of marketing.

"We have always worked in the context of everyday life in Mississippi - but not in the context of disaster. It's a whole different world," said Sessums.

The finished product - 80 of Porter's paintings - will become an exhibit that travels to museums, galleries and universities nationwide.

Sessums said the exhibit will portray, in part, how volunteers have helped people find the spirit to survive. "One person has the strength to get up every day because somebody from New Mexico got in the car and drove there. All these people came down here and gave a part of themselves."

Artistic expression isn't separate from the disaster recovery process - it's intertwined, said Sessums. "It's long-term recovery in a non-traditional way."

If art promotes human healing and disaster recovery, preparation deserves an equally creative approach, mused Alan Borner, founder and CEO of the New Hampshire-based Environmental Hazards Management Institute.

Using a tool from the 14th century, Borner has created disaster preparation "wheels" with simple rotating messages. With topics ranging from bird flu pandemic to mold, the wheels are based on hand-made wheels developed centuries ago for physicians. "They would look at the wheels and perform surgery," said Borner.

Today, he said, people who care about being prepared - particularly elderly people or persons with disabilities like the clarity of the wheel. Often these populations are coping with piles of paperwork related to healthcare or other benfits before disaster even hits - and reading thick books about disaster preparedness doesn't appeal to them. "They're putting the wheels on their fridge," said Borner. "It's a very simple product."

Hundreds of miles away in Las Vegas, disaster preparedness consultant Judith Cichowicz wonders why more disaster planners don't follow Borner's line of thought - and creatively build on the knowledge of their predecessors. "In the late 1970s, I was a disaster preparedness planner from the state of Oregon," said Cichowicz. "We had to do all-hazards planning. Now people are talking about all-hazards planning as if they just remembered it.

"Within the emergency management field, I haven't seen that they've been whole-brain thinkers," she said. "Instead they have tended to focus getting the budget to get the fanciest radio system. I'm not always sure technology is purely the solution. We're not getting that history communicated in emergency response."

Disaster competency, she added, needs to be taken down to a family level - and "the elbow bump" is just one example, she said.

The elbow bump? You bump elbows instead of shaking hands, explained Cichowicz. It reduces the spread of germs - and it could be a practical part of pandemic preparation. "We are not discussing that in the U.S. as a method for practicing social distance, yet it would reduce the chance of spreading contaminants," she said.

Sometimes creative approaches seem to elude the national disaster experts, agreed Lee Ann Broussard, chairperson for Elder Voice, a new Louisiana-based organization made up of representatives from home health agencies, nonprofit organizations that serve the elderly, voluntary healthcare organizations and the Center on Aging staff from Lafayette General Medical Center.

Elder Voice's first project has been to develop a survey that will be distributed to elderly people throughout the 8-parish area that makes up Acadiana. The surveys - filled out voluntarily - will then be collected by Elder Voice. The information, in turn, will be forwarded to the appropriate agencies and emergency managers in those areas. "It is our desire that the information will be one more tool that officials can use to save lives," said Broussard.

Saving lives is critically important, agreed Celia Straus, but keeping long-term recovery in the eyes of the public takes both creativity and tenacity. Straus is co-founder of Eyes Haven't Seen, a Washington-D.C.-based communications company that focuses on social change and disaster recovery.

"There's a huge impetus to respond and then everybody goes home," she said. "To focus on long-term recovery - I think that's huge. When I go to these conferences, I am amazed at how many people advertise disaster training - but it's very militarized. You can have simulations, but that doesn't filter down. There are very few tools out there that empower people to do stuff on their own."

Empowering people means creating programs that help people heal themselves, said the Rev. Dr. Ken Sloane, who helped create a New Jersey-based program called HEART, or Healing, Encouragement and Advocacy in Response to Tragedy.

As clients' needs emerged in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, HEART program leaders developed a system that helped people form personal disaster recovery plans. Administered by the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church through a grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, HEART case managers helped more than 500 people in the wake of the attacks.

HEART's approach was tailored for each client - and its staff survived such an intense atmosphere with a lot of creative humor, they agreed.

"We not only worked to meet immediate needs but helped people map out a long-term recovery," said Sloane. "Now, nearly five years later, I am happy and sad to say we're able to close our doors. We learned so much."


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