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What a Disaster.
Thoughts on the flood and its aftermath
Vermont— yes, seemingly the entire state—flooded over a few days a bit over a week ago. It made national news, so maybe you know this. You may be far away and file it away under “yet another natural disaster” in the abstract feeling that these things tend to take on. I didn’t really register the flooding in Northern California when it happened some months ago, but now I get it more.
Personally, we live in a second floor apartment up on a hill and were about as safe as can be.
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In what in retrospect felt like a ridiculous move of distorted perspective, the day after everything flooded Kharina and I jumped in our car and attempted to get ourselves to the church basement co-working space the next town over. We both had meetings, and needed internet closer to acceptable contemporary speeds, rather than our home connection, in which I am constantly hearing the ghost of AOL dial up in my head waiting for my email to load.
This is how we figured out that most of the roads around us had washed out. Reynaudroad, our closest intersection, opened up into a canyon fit for a few pick ups trucks. The bottom of the road into town was totally under water. The other direction, well, it kind of depended on where you were trying to go.
We found a way, guided by one of the ubiquitous dirt bikers patrolling the back roads in the immediate aftermath…and that’s how we found out the co-working space had flooded. So…back home. Kharina’s team made a last minute call to move the client presentation she was supposed to lead. I made a valiant attempt to record an interview, though that attempt proved no match for the sluggish internet.
Our work— ::out there:: on the internet and in other states— was fine. We, personally, were shaken up but relatively fine. But the infrastructure and community around us were carting truckloads of dirt to patch roads and attempting to pump water out of silt-filled basements all over.
I’ve been reading up on disaster funding so that I can help a friend who sucks at paperwork and owns multiple apartment buildings. Trying to figure out how to help landlords…what I can say is the internet wants you to feel really badly about it! It’s assumed that landlords will be avaricious and cruel, and that tenants need to be protected.
And I get that — truly, I don’t believe that landlords should exist— however, folks still need to rent apartments, and my friend Mark is one of the good ones. Many of his tenants have been renting from him for decades without much of a rent increase. And 7 of his rental units are under water. One woman lost her car in the flood, so he gave her his car to use.
He’s been lucky on some fronts: a crew of friends pitched in to clear out and gut the apartments the past week; he no longer has mortgages on most of the buildings; and he had two empty 2nd floor units where he could move tenants without anywhere else to go. He has some cash in savings, but mostly these apartments are his retirement plan— he’s in his mid sixties, and like many Vermonters, has had a multi-varied livelihood without many W2’s.
Here’s the thing about disaster funding for businesses: it’s mostly all debt based. What made PPP loans so radical when they happened was they were forgivable loans. In almost all other cases, like the EIDL loans, disaster funding means a business must take on debt.
The thing about debt is you have to be pretty sure that your business is going to continue as an ongoing concern—and a profitable one—for a loan to make any sense. Debt creates a hole that eats profit until it’s filled. Without understanding how that hole will be filled, debt can quickly turn into a hungry sinkhole, collapsing the walls into itself, subsuming all stable surfaces around it.
Which brings me to GoFundMe: Kharina pulled up instagram this morning and showed me the Linktree of one of the businesses in our town, which had been methodically adding GoFundMe’s for Vermont farms and businesses as they went live.
She scrolled, and scrolled, and scrolled.
A couple of the early ones exceeded their goals, those late to the game (by, like, a couple of days people!) are 1/4, 1/3 of the way and creeping along. I’m feeling it too: it’s a lot of links to click through to and send $25 flying off into all sorts of corners already…and then more pop up.
GoFundMe relies on networks, visibility, and skill in marketing. When you scroll through a whole list, you can see this in action.
Now, we’re only a week out. Roads are still washed out. Businesses are pulling debris out onto the sidewalks. In downtown Montepelier sidewalks are lined with piles of wrecked detritus.
There are some grant funds popping up, from support orgs with the networks and infrastructure to stand them up. But those will take time and so far are tiny amounts of money compared to what it will take to get a flooded business back up and running.
But those are the options at least right now.
I’m prepping John and my first episode of Whiskey Fridays, and while we were recording John (laughingly…) accused me of being in a real downer period with all this talk of failure.
And I’ll tell you what I told him: we’re going to keep experiencing disasters. Our businesses and livelihoods are going to be impacted by forces outside of our control.
And what happens in the wake of these disasters can create openings for change towards something more resilient. We know this from Covid, yes?
I’m investigating failure because I am hopeful about what comes after and because we need to destroy some things that are not serving us, collectively.
I don’t want people to grind themselves to dust trying to make their businesses work. And I don’t want the only options for viable business success to be large corporations and monopolies.
In my town, there’s an organization called The Civic Standard which was formed via weekly soup dinners and bonfires in the midst of the pandemic shutdown. What began as three local women connecting neighbors, is now an organization renovating an old building and growing as a unique mix of community space and civic organization.
As soon as the floods came, The Civic Standard stepped up as the nexus of support and resourcing for the area: neighbors needing help with clean up, food and donation, setting up and staffing the temporary shelter at the high school.
I’m not sure how these roles would have been filled without them, but it feels important to pay attention to the new sorts of connective tissue that come out of each disaster.
And to circle back to the funding and recovery question: waves of disaster will require something different than waves of debt, and something both more robust and less reliant on individuals than Go Fund Me’s and pop up fundraising.
I don’t know what all those solutions are, but I’m looking for all the new bits of connective tissue that arise.
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Named after the family whose farm abuts the road, whose draft horses and steer summer in the field in front of our house. Grace, our friend and landlady, trades maple syrup for use of the pasture, electricity for the fence, and water from her tap to the trough. Every year it’s the same horses, and a different group of 5-6 steer. They don’t make it through the winter, if you know what I mean. Kharina takes great delight in naming them every year.
Renting out apartments is definitely a form of business, though it’s confusing to suss out whether funders think they are; there’s a real disjuncture between being a landlord and a “real” business owner, at least in terms of grants and funding.