Vermont Arts Council

After a Disaster

Beginning Tuesday morning, August 30, 2011:

There is so much to remember. At dawn after the nighttime deluge, downtown Waterbury was under several feet of brown water. When that receded we had a thick layer of muck that turned to brown soot. The color was unforgettably ugly, and to me represented the enormous task ahead.

The first thing I did as a citizen was what apparently most of the town did: go to Thatcher Brook Primary School and volunteer my service for whatever was needed. The first few days the crew of volunteers was mostly local folks, and the organization whipped into place. It was impressive.

As the week wore on, the crowd grew and it was harder to find parking. For once it didn’t irritate me at all, it was a welcome crowd. I shoveled muck downtown for several days, and then latched on to a family that I knew in Middlesex whose property had been devastated. Several years prior to the flood they had lost a teenage son in an auto accident. I was going through their papers, trying to dry out what could be salvaged. The parents clarified that the most important things to save were photos of their lost son. Peeling these photos apart and attempting not to damage the prints was a tough, heartbreaking challenge. That was the task that made me realize the importance of helping the flood victims to recover emotionally and spiritually.

Tile photos by Gordon Miller (here, top left, bottom right).

The Floodgates Project

A local business owner loaned us a small storefront that had been damaged by the flood. It actually had a flood line halfway up the wall, which we artistically accentuated with dripping paint. The place was musty and dirty, and represented perfectly the situation of Waterbury. We cleaned it up just enough to make it presentable.

We passed out hundreds of “tiles”—square boards in two sizes, with the instructions that anyone could express their experiences and feelings about the storm and the after-storm, in any medium they wished, including words. No limits. And if they wanted to do something creative in another format or medium, it was all welcome. They did it all. We received over three hundred and fifty entries from very young children to very old citizens. It was astounding.

There was a small side room that we decided to use as a “response room.” In it, pads of colorful sticky notes were placed on small tables with pens. Visitors (who were also often also creative contributors) left their personal notes after their visit. We kept these notes in a book after the show closed. They certainly became part of the experience. As time progressed, the walls were filled with notes.

I was manning the show one evening, and a family came in who were visiting the area. They were so blown away by the community spirit and the energy in the exhibit that they left wanting to move to Waterbury. (I wonder if they ever did!)

It’s Hard to Explain

Loss is very difficult to define and pinpoint, because experience, understanding, and emotional impact varies significantly with the individual. The aspect that most people shared was the disruption of familiar day-to-day life. Loss of life or property are certainly sensitive and serious issues. Those who don’t have full capacity to express their emotions and experiences through language—the elderly, the very young, and those with mental and emotional difficulties— find it particularly challenging to sort out their own personal expression. These are the people who responded to creative therapy with so much energy that they became the backbone of our project. Their honesty and openness was surprising and inspiring to both those who created “tiles” for the project, and to those who came to see the exhibit.

Photo by Sarah-Lee Terrat.

One elderly man who lived downtown shared his story about being evacuated during the 1927 flood via boat from his second story window. He was evacuated a second time during Irene in a wheelchair. His family made sure that his story was part of the collection, and it was a healing element for everybody. The gentleman died shortly afterwards.

Call on Community

Waterbury was lucky because we have a very active community of volunteers serving in various nonprofit organizations that have helped the downtown and broader community thrive. Revitalizing Waterbury is a nonprofit that snapped into action to work with the state, with FEMA, and with citizens to move through the unseen difficulties of paperwork necessary for funding relief. They had an AmeriCorp volunteer working full-time which was very lucky and helpful. This infrastructure formed a base to quickly build a relief effort that was heralded as a model for other communities.

Help from the government and insurance, although not perfect, was there for our citizens to recover and restore their properties. Our community’s volunteer organizations were a great aid in ensuring that we received that help. Through my experience I came to understand that social, spiritual, and emotional help is just as important to recovery and the kind of help that one can see with one’s eyes. Property gets restored, the town comes back to normal—sometimes better than normal. But the jarring of an individual’s life and emotions are more difficult to see, and the effects can last for a very long time.

Disasters can come in many forms, as we see in the recent mass shootings from which communities are trying to recover. A small amount of planning, perhaps through a nonprofit group, for citizens to get the spiritual help they need can be structured in times of calm. Perhaps this can be synchronized with the community governing body to provide a basic plan.

Looking Forward

If a community can plan for future disasters with a certain basic infrastructure, perhaps they can do a similar thing with emotional recovery. Group efforts like the Floodgates Project help people realize that they are not alone, that others are with them “in the trenches,” both physically and emotionally; this is an immense comfort. It is also a valuable tool for making a town understand the magic of working together in yet another way; this is truly a lasting legacy.

All of this prior effort can be handy when the time comes to implement it. To some citizens this may seem superfluous. Until we need it.

Sarah-Lee Terrat will speak at the launch meeting of the Vermont Arts & Culture Disaster and Resilience Network (VACDaRN) on September 10, 2019 in Randolph.

Sarah-Lee is a professional artist operating Yelodog Design in Waterbury and is a co-owner of Fuzzu. She completed the Green and Gold mural as a part of the rebuilding of the State Office Complex in Waterbury after Tropical Storm Irene.