Civic health in the wake of disaster

The moment the skies cleared Friday, Nebraskans got to work – and in doing so, embodied our state's strong civic health.

On April 26, a series of tornadoes ripped through eastern Nebraska including the Lincoln and Omaha areas, leaving a trail of destruction that is, days later, still being reckoned with. The storms destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and businesses, leaving many Nebraskans without power, shelter, or any idea of what to do next. 
With a few days’ perspective, we remain amazed and grateful. For a storm of such size and duration, it’s truly incredible no one was killed. We give eternal thanks for that – and for our fellow Nebraskans, who have joined together to support one another following this disaster. As we do, we are demonstrating the durability and solidarity that puts our state’s civic health front and center.
What is civic health? It’s how members of a community enhance their interconnections, build trust among the group, help one another, talk about and act on public issues, volunteer, stay informed, and create solutions to shared challenges. In her seminal 2009 work A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit discusses a common entry point to displays of civic health: mass emergencies. Collective action, she argues, quickly emerges in the face of disaster, with ordinary people rising to the occasion with acts of bravery, compassion, and consensus. Solnit uses the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina nearly a century later as examples.
From the moment the skies cleared Friday, Nebraskans embodied this phenomenon. Once given the all-clear, residents sprang into action to help neighbors and strangers alike, work that continues even as we write this. Volunteer groups formed and began assisting with cleanup. Individuals donated and helped distribute everything from food and water to clothes to personal hygiene items to household goods. Others have opened their homes to those who had been displaced. In short, people from all walks have come together with a common purpose and in the spirit of shared humanity.
Adversity doesn’t build character, the old saying goes, it reveals it. Moments like these provide an urgent entry point to the true strength of a community. Strangers become friends, neighbors become family, and the bonds that hold our communities together – our civic health – grow stronger.
The best news is that civic health isn’t reserved solely for the aftermath of massive disasters. If we choose, this is how we can be every daywhether we’re responding to a large-scale crisis or simply making our way through a quiet, uneventful weekday. If there is any kind of silver lining to what happened in places like Waverly and Elkhorn and Bennington this week, it’s that many of us can be inspired by the community spirit we’re currently experiencing, and sustain our spirit of civic health long after Friday’s devastation passes into memory.
Soon, the headlines will fade and the world’s attention will move away from Nebraska. That’s the nature of things, and we won’t take it personally. Of course, Nebraskans will still be here, laboring over the months and years to build back their homes and livelihoods. There are undoubtedly hard days ahead of us. But we’re thankful to know that with strong civic health, these days can be just a little bit easier.

You can help:

American Red Cross
donate | volunteer
Rapid Response America
Humane Society of Nebraska
United Way of the Midlands
Text TORNADO24 to 41444 | 402-522-7962 |

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