The explosion and fire in San Bruno, CA devastated a small section of this peninsula city on September 9th. It literally rocked this normally peaceful community, registering the explosion as a 1.1 magnitude earthquake at USGS. Witnesses reported the initial blast “had a wall of fire more than 1000 feet high.”
First responders were on the scene quickly, but it took scores of fire engines that waged an all-night battle, including air tankers before the fire was finally brought under control in the early hours of the morning. Residents rallied and were instrumental in the response, helping firefighters drag hoses long distances to working fire hydrants and drive burned neighbors to local hospitals.
By noon on Friday, the fire was finally out, but the neighborhood was devastated with four people dead*, many more injured and several people missing. It might best be described as if a napalm bomb was dropped there; people could certainly be forgiven for initially assuming a plane crashed there.
Even as first responders were there minutes after the explosion, nonprofits and faith-based organizations mobilized immediately as well. Led by the City of San Bruno, the County of San Mateo and American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter, evacuation centers were erected, shelters opened and services rendered.
The needs of the affected residents’ were starting to be met, from food and clothing to grief counseling to spiritual care to family locating services. Residents throughout the Bay Area needing to help but wanting no recognition were dropping off donations of money, food, water and clothing at local churches, the shelters and the local assistance center. They simply needed to contribute something to help a devastated community heal.
A sense of shared community is inherent in disasters. People feel an immediate bond through the experience of shared loss. A few misguided authority figures may believe a population rocked by disaster should be feared and contained, lest they devolve into anarchy with looting and murder becoming the predominant outcome (refer to some of the responses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina).
In reality, communities come together; people feed each other, house each other, watch each other’s children, support each other emotionally, spiritually and in every way needed. It’s known as mutual support, and it was clearly happening in San Bruno.
As we know, all disasters are different, and this one is no exception. Some of the differences are that this one is confined to a small isolated area; it only affected a small segment of the population; it didn’t affect the response agencies; it didn’t affect the nonprofits or the majority of the congregations in the city; it was largely confined to a middle-class neighborhood where insurance could help compensate the residents; it was immediately identified as caused by a failed gas pipeline owned by PG&E, who also immediately acknowledged that they “owned” the disaster and led the recovery effort.
One of the silver linings that come from a large-scale disaster such as a major earthquake, wildfire or flood is that the entire community shares in the loss. It is not a positive aspect that so many are devastated by large-scale disasters, but it is the spirit of the shared experience that brings the community together as the recovery begins. In this case, the residents of the neighborhood in San Bruno who are directly impacted by the explosion and fire may begin to identify themselves as separate from the remainder of the community.
That tendency was evident as early as the town hall meetings that took place the week following the disaster, where residents clearly identified themselves as red, yellow or green tagged. And there were heated conversations between government entities, PG&E and the residents, indicating a sense of the divide beginning to surface. And despite the gratefulness of all the residents for the outpouring of sympathy and assistance, there was a sense of “there’s us and there’s them”.
This is not to judge people’s attitudes but instead to point out that there is a very real schism that takes place between people whose lives are completely overturned and devastated in a disaster and those whose aren’t. And in this case, the affected population is large enough to send shockwaves through the community that creates the desire to assist, but small enough to have the potential to isolate those directly affected. As I walked through the assistance centers set up to support residents it was apparent that those wanting to provide support and aid outnumbered those who were seeking that assistance.
So as we reach out to help we must keep in mind that there is a difference between mutual aid and charity. That people prefer a hand instead of a handout. That people have the need to participate in their own recovery. That there may be a tendency to overwhelm the residents affected by this event as long term recovery operations establish themselves. Because even if there isn’t widespread shared loss as a result of the disaster, there is shared pain throughout the community resulting in a need to help.
We should keep in mind that we need to proceed carefully. Allow the residents to participate as decisions are made about how to allocate recovery funds and render assistance. Establish the recovery effort to include their voices, not just their needs. This simple but powerful concept will keep the model of shared community recovery prominently at the fore and keep the recovery a shared experience – a true practice of mutual aid.