Vermont’s Nehemiah Moment?

Vermont Public Radio’s website has become my go-to for updates of how people are responding to the devastation wrought by last weekend’s flooding. I don’t think they are consciously focusing on this theme, but it appears that mutual aid has become the new normal. Of course, that is admittedly not far from the old normal in a state that prides itself in a gritty independence that is perhaps a bit less individualistic than its neighbors in New Hampshire.

In a disaster that literally separated more than a dozen towns from the outside world, it’s hardly surprising that folks came together and improvised with what they have. Today, there’s a story about a small trail through the woods that has become a replacement for US Highway 4, which has washed out in numerous places: Two formerly obscure dead-end roads come close to each other, and a shortcut through the woods is now the path of least resistance. Neighbors are doing what they can to direct traffic. This is obviously only a short-term fix, but still provides a fascinating and encouraging picture of resilience and creative problem-solving.

There has clearly been a lot of interesting stuff happening in Vermont, most of it outside the eyes of the most intrepid journalists, some of which have been traveling by bicycle to spend time in isolated towns.

But into the mix comes Sarah Waterman, a Vermont native who left home to get an MPA in North Carolina, with a focus on disaster preparedness and response. She developed this interest after Hurricane Katrina, after which she spent three months in Biloxi helping with the recovery there. She moved back home after school, where she was working on a startup to support nonprofit organizations.

Waterman is now leading VTResponse, which is a week old and already seems to be the main place to get information about how people are helping and can help each other. It includes links to crowdsourced maps that apparently have more up-to-date information than the state transportation authorities are able to provide.

So out of nowhere, we have someone who was in the right place at the right time and is providing a framework around which all sorts of decentralized effort seems to be crystallizing. Her little crew has been working nonstop to connect would-be helpers with those who need help. It will be an interesting effort to watch unfold.

Without projecting any sort of religious motivation or significance on Waterman’s work, I want to hold it up as a modern-day example of what Nehemiah did in catalyzing the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s wall. I think it is important for us to occasionally look at biblical stories without the haze of miracle. After all, these are often the accounts of people living in tumultuous times, who make good and bad decisions with occasionally outsized consequences. Demystifying these stories, at least temporarily, can help us get a better sense for how God might be moving in our skeptical age.

In any case, bravo to Waterman and her crew of volunteers.

This sort of collective organizing – embodied by both Nehemiah and Waterman – is unfortunately going to become more and more important.

My point is that it is only a matter of time before the government can no longer make any pretense of putting things back together like they were before. And frankly, I doubt the private sector has a chance of it, either. It will be up to communities to find new and creative ways of supporting each other in tough times.

For anyone who has perhaps been inspired to finally take disaster prep seriously, I want to offer a resource to supplement the valuable information about what individuals and households should do to prepare by accumulating specific supplies: In another day, in another blog, I put together a manual for collective disaster response. It’s crude but I hope it is helpful in this scenario. I encourage everyone to print it up.

Don’t leave it in your email, because you’ll need it most when the computer isn’t working.

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