Overcoming Adversity – How will Sandy’s victims cope?

 When it rains...

Eric via Compfight

A week ago today, the super storm spawned by the convergence of Hurricane Sandy and cold Arctic air unleashed its fury on the US East Coast. Creating unprecedented havoc and subjecting thousands of people to levels of adversity never before experienced.

Enough words, photos and videos, have been written, tweeted, shared, liked and pinned to sear the images of the destructive power of nature on the minds of all of us.

Up here in Ontario, we are grateful that we got off very lightly with minimal damage and inconvenience. We  sympathise with those in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere who have suffered losses of loved ones and property.

How will those most badly affected cope with the losses, disruption or inconvenience? Will they see themselves as lucky? Fortunate that they survived. Or will they choose to live in victim mode for the rest of their lives?

If they are like most people faced with disaster, in a variety of ways.

I had my own experience of witnessing people losing their homes, businesses, all their assets, some their health and even their lives, a few their sanity. For us it did not happen overnight in one huge storm and it was not the force of nature that caused the deaths and destruction. It was the calculated strategy of a brutal, unpopular government determined to cling to power at all costs. It was the illegal farm invasions in Zimbabwe which started in 2000.

Our catastrophe did not cause its chaos in 24 hours like most natural storms. It took 3 years to account for most of its victims but is still continuing at a slower pace 12 years later. Slower only because there are very few potential victims left, not because of a change of heart of the government or benevolent action by a major power, the UN or any of the other organisations that make all the noise about “human rights” in countries from Burma to Syria.

For us the victims, it was worse in a way, we had to wait for the carnage to reach our particular area. For me personally, it was 3 years of apprehension, wondering if the lunacy would stop before it wiped out 90% of the agricultural sector. Wondering if we would be spared. Refusing to surrender and voluntarily leave our farm. Three years of learning to survive under increasing adversity.

Three factors made our problem seem worse than a natural disaster.

  • The perpetrators of the violence had been forced on our peaceful country by our so-called allies the UK, USA and most of the Western powers in 1980.
  • Those same Western powers did nothing to help or protect us twenty years later.
  • If we defended ourselves and our property, we might survive the day, but sheer numbers in the police and army would eventually kill us.

Over that three-year period, I had the opportunity to experience at first hand how different people coped with extreme adversity. I experienced the trauma myself.

Some people caved in early, at the first experience of intimidation, the first threats, they abandoned their farms. Some of those justified their decisions because of concerns for young children, health, aged relatives. Others (perhaps wisely) realised that if they could not win in the long-term, why risk their lives and put up with possibly years of strife. If they had to start new lives, sooner was better than later.

Others stood on principle, their values would not let them surrender to terrorism. Some of those paid the ultimate price – with their lives. Some of those were ambushed away for their properties, others arrested by the police and handed over to the executioners. A few fought back with their guns until large numbers of police and army were brought in to overwhelm them and prevent neighbours coming to their assistance.

Another group thought they could survive by collaborating with the enemy, paying protection money in the form of fuel, fertilizer, providing tractors and equipment for the invaders to use on farms stolen from their neighbours. Many also voluntarily gave up parts of their farms in the hopes that they could keep the rest. Most of this group only bought time. Some suffered the same fate as the rest of us. Some are still on small parts of their original farms, learning daily, the lesson that a blackmailer is never satisfied, the demands never stop, they just keep on increasing until the victim has no more to give.

The majority of us just did our best, we tried to keep our farms going, our workers employed, we did everything we could to resist the tide of anarchy sweeping across the country. We waited as one by one farmers were intimidated into leaving, had equipment, crops and cattle stolen, houses, crops and buildings set on fire, workers forced to flee for their own safety. Death threats, daily intimidation, being barricaded into our security fences by mobs, fires lit around the perimeter.

Like an incoming tide creeping across mud flats, it spread from one farming area to the next, generally the biggest, most developed and productive farms were the first to be targeted, more prizes for the pirates to plunder. The smaller farms would sometimes be left like islands of normality in a sea of insanity. Eventually they would be shut down by attrition, it is difficult to survive in isolation in those circumstances.

overcome adversity

Sunset over a farm dam in Zimbabwe

That is how they eventually got us, we were the 2nd last operating farm in a district of 43 farms. It is not for me to pass judgement on others, they all had their own reasons for their choices. I am happy that I stood my ground until I was put in a police cell for my principles and forcibly prevented from returning to my home. I can live with myself and sleep at night.

So yes I feel qualified to write about overcoming adversity, I survived my own baptism by fire and saw how scores of others did too. I also saw how some who I thought would survive better, didn’t and some who survived far better than would have been expected given their previous circumstances.

How then will people recover from hurricane Sandy?

First it will depend on how badly affected they were by the storm and the loss of services in the aftermath. Obviously those that lost family members will be more seriously affected than those who lost property. We would expect that those who just lost power or could not get to work for a day or two, would get over it much more quickly than those who had their homes destroyed or lost loved ones. I would put money on that not being correct in all cases.

Secondly, it will depend on each persons depths of resilience. How they have managed to overcome adversity in previous difficult periods. For some this could have been the final straw in a series of misfortunes since the recession started. For others this could be the first setback in a happy and successful life. That does not mean that all in the first group would find this upheaval more traumatic than those in the second. Human nature being what it is, there will be some that shrug the difficulties off in both groups and some from both that stay in victim mode for years or even the rest of their lives.

Thirdly would be each persons degree of comfort with the way their lives were before the disaster, those with a sense of purpose either through jobs, careers, study or volunteer work who can still continue with their daily activities, have less time to dwell on their misfortunes. For others who had too much time on their hands, this could be an ideal opportunity to volunteer, help others, meet new people, make a contribution and through all of those see an opportunity to change their lives.

Fourth will be each persons attitude to life. Asking “Why me” does not help and delays recovery. Recognising that one is fortunate to be alive and being grateful for whatever one has salvaged helps start the recovery process. Accepting that the situation is what it is and moving on is what those that will overcome this adversity will do. Realizing that there are hundreds or even thousands of people left worse off than us by this disaster also puts it into perspective.

Fifth will be the small group that immediately sees an opportunity to change their lives in some way. Some may adopt the attitude that they did not like the house that was swept away. Others may have been thinking of moving to a different suburb or city, now that decision might have been made for them. Insurance payments taking care of car loans might give others the freedom to move, change jobs, travel or start a business. There will certainly be people who grasp those opportunities and in a few years time will look back and recognise that the storm changed their lives for the better. 

Those that recover quickly and escape victim status, will be the ones that accept what has happened, appreciate that they are still alive and better off than many others and then set about rebuilding their lives.

Will they have bad days? Of course. After 9 years, Sue and I still have our bad days, particularly in a cold and gloomy Canadian winter, when we would do anything to be back on our farm in Zimbabwe leading the life we once had. But that life is gone. A bit of nostalgia is fine, continually wishing things were different is a ticket to life as a victim.

It’s not what happens to you in life, it’s what you do about it that counts.

Wishing all those affected by Sandy a speedy return to normality.


Peter Wright

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