“World model” for community resilience
Sherri Brokopp Binder, a graduate student from University of Hawaii has worked with aid groups following natural disasters around the world. She was in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, in Mozambique and Guatemala following serious flooding in those countries, but according to the quiet and serious student of psychology, she has never seen anything like the aftermath of the Pacific tsunami of 2009, and the examples set by the people of American Samoa following that cataclysmic event.
Her journey to this study, and this place and time was a winding road. Born in Florida and schooled at Brandeis University in Boston, Binder had been working for several years at an environmental policy institute (aka a “think tank” ). During her vacations, and “as often as possible” she volunteered to aid in the wake of natural disasters around the world. She said it was something she really felt drawn to do; helping people whose lives had been traumatized by events such as the category 5 hurricane that struck New Orleans in 2005.
She said, “I realized that my job at the think tank was no longer the right job for me; it was really someone else’s dream job.” She explained that she “connected better with people” when she was working to alleviate problems caused by the disasters which had disrupted their lives.
She made the decision to change careers, she said, and went looking for PhD programs. After applying at UH, she found herself moving to Hawaii with her husband.
Her doctoral dissertation focuses on “Cultural and Community Psychology” and she noted that since moving to Hawaii, where the geographic focus of the University is toward the Pacific, she realized that her focus, too, should be upon the Pacific, where she would be looking at people working in groups rather than as individuals.
How groups of people recover from natural disasters would be at the center of her study, along with the cultural mores and folkways which come into play as a community moves from disaster to recovery.
She noted that while she has traveled extensively, this is her first research project outside the U.S.
“In this discipline (psychology) we have all of these models regarding how people respond and recover from natural tragedies, but it has been based on research done within the continental U.S. Because I was there at UH, in the Pacific, I wanted to focus on the Pacific," she explained.
She said, with some irony, that just as she began her doctoral program, the tsunami struck Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. Like others, she was horrified by the tragic news coming out of the South Pacific, but she also recognized that this was the opportunity she needed to work through her thesis.
She has interviewed, by her count, about 30 residents regarding the tsunami, and their recollection of the days, weeks and months that followed the disaster. She has recorded their memories, the tragedies, the hope and the hard work that went into recovery efforts.
This is her second trip to the territory, the first was in 2011.
“ I interviewed a pretty broad swath of the society ... and people I talked to introduced me to their family members.” she said. “I spoke to both government and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) about their experiences, as well as the roles they played in the response and recovery, the changes they had observed, and how people were interacting with one another. Here, in part, is what she took away from those interviews.
American Samoa is a “world model” for resilience. The speed at which people started to come out ... rebuilding, repairing, getting to work immediately ... they weren’t waiting for outside help, they worked together, had clear jobs to do — such as the aumaga — who enforced village rules and security. “The rest of the world could learn a lot from the example given here following the tsunami” she stated emphatically.
There are numerous examples of villages and families working together to clear and clean the devastation, to bandage and bind the wounds, and render all manner of physical assistance to young and old. Church groups and community service organizations worked side by side with government responders in this effort.
Life goes on; people understand that here, and emotions are contained when someone dies. Still, the tsunami was so unusual, so huge, so unexpected, and so outside the normal experience of most people ... that it did take an emotional toll.
Said Binder, “I spoke to many older people who had never experienced a tsunami in their lifetime” and afterward, they were reminded of the tsunami every time they saw the ocean, or if there was an earthquake. The same held true for children, whose parents noted that they had experienced such things as nightmares and general anxiety which was difficult for them to articulate.
The good news is that there were several groups here at the time who were addressing the emotional needs of people by helping with practical needs, combined with talking, and listening. It was important to validate the emotional experience of the survivors by simply listening, providing space, and providing work that could be therapeutic. These were primarily NGOs and village groups which were filling this need.
As a graduate student from U.H. Manoa Department of Psychology, Binder's work adds to the annals of those who have researched and documented the ways American Samoa dealt with the life-changing experience of the tsunami. "Hopefully, we will never have to deal with another," she said, "but it’s best to be prepared. The ocean has its own mind."
A copy of her thesis can be found at Feleti Barstow Library, entitled “Resilience and Disaster Recovery in American Samoa: A Case Study of the 2009 Pacific Tsunami”.