Who Runs Bartertown?

Out of the wreckage: Surviving means more than resuming

Christopher Allan Smith

September 20, 2021

This final article in the series is about dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe. When it was originally written, not so long ago, it was a look back to the Camp Fire of 2018, and what those of us who survived learned that could help those in the future deal with their own disasters.

But the summer of 2021 has reminded us, again, that we are always living in an aftermath. As I write this new introduction, communities across Butte and Plumas counties, like Greenville, pick through the ashes of homes that still stood when I began writing this series. And flames curve around the rim of the communities of Lake Tahoe.

In the media stories about disasters, there is often a kind of curve that emerges.

Peace gives way to catastrophe. Unexpected heroes emerge, displaying service and courage. First responders, governmental, and private groups rush in to nurse the wounded and restore peace—or at least lessen the destruction that chaos leaves behind.

Teary survivors survey the wreckage that was once their anonymous corner of the world and look to the future with resolution to build it all back. Wreckage is cleared, hammers start driving into two-by-fours, and pretty soon after that, the story is “over.”

This is part four of a remastered and updated version of the Emmy-nominated documentary series A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire.

Like all stories from Hollywood, much of that narrative is built to evoke emotions. Some of it is fiction, and some that is true is reframed in such a way that it misleads.

For those of us who have survived a true disaster, the road to recovery is twisted and strange and may even be a mirage. But the road to a worthwhile aftermath, the road to creating a good life and an enduring organization, is possible. It will be a strange journey, but there’s nothing to be done about it but face what’s in front of you and get to work. 

This came into ludicrous focus for me when I came across Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. As a kid, the Mad Max movies were the go-to metaphor when it came to post-apocalyptic storytelling. In the popular imagination, it was the world we would find ourselves in after a nuclear exchange or pandemic (ulp!), or after the oil ran out. Everything was warlords and biker gangs, and it was the literal worst-case scenario for civilization.

Thunderdome was the least loved of the series but seeing it again after my own apocalypse provided a crazy kind of hope. In it, Tina Turner plays Aunty Entity, a onetime nobody who in the aftermath leads a community out of the ashes and inspires them to settle Bartertown. It’s a first meaningful step in rebuilding civilization along more peaceful, thoughtful lines in a way that could avoid the tensions and wars of the past. Though there are some complexities not worth going into here, Entity was not a warlord. While not a peacemaker per se, she was a leader trying to make something more than an empire of fear—leading into a series of exchanges about “Who runs Bartertown?” and inspiring the title of this article.

The film reminded me that even in the literal worst of times, the sun comes up, and people react better than we imagine. Civilization can be rebuilt. New happiness can come, which is probably the most important thing to keep in mind as you and yours venture through your recovery.

So I’m here to offer the final lessons from what I and my fellow citizens of the Paradise Ridge learned living through the ravaging of our community by the Camp Fire in November 2018.

Not all lessons are T-shirt friendly

There seems to be a natural impulse among well-meaning people who, as they see someone struggling with the emotional or practical echoes of a disaster, are compelled to give these survivors some variation on the “pick yourself up and soldier on” speech, with the subtext being something like, “Isn’t that over?”

Though well-meaning as it is heartfelt and caring, in my experience the advice always hits the ear of a survivor sounding hopelessly naive. Disasters linger long after the news cameras are packed up, hustled to the next story, and the tender “first anniversary” stories are posted.

So take this one to heart first:

Lesson 22: There is no closure. There is only after.

Being an American, one of the things I like most about our culture is the relentless optimism. But relentlessness is one dial tick from delusional.

We hope to face adversity, realize we’ll probably bow from the strain, then rally to lift ourselves up and continue on wiser than before.

But here’s the thing about my experience with Paradise and the day it was consumed by the Camp Fire: The town is gone. It’s heartbreaking, bleak, and a glimpse of our existence’s darkest face. Reckoning with that difficulty is the core mission of recovering.

Buried on a website from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—it’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration section, no less—is a chart that’s something like wisdom. Its phases and descriptions map eerily to what I have seen played out in my own life and those of my family and friends.

The phases break down something like this:

Phase 1—The pre-disaster phase: Phase one is characterized by fear and uncertainty. The specific reactions a community experiences depend on the type of disaster. Disasters with no warning can cause feelings of vulnerability and lack of security; fears of future, unpredicted tragedies; and a sense of loss of control or the loss of the ability to protect yourself and your family. On the other hand, disasters with warning can cause guilt or self-blame for failure to heed the warnings. The pre-disaster phase may be as short as hours, or even minutes, such as during a terrorist attack, or it may be as long as several months, such as during a hurricane season.

Phase 2—The impact phase: Phase two is characterized by a range of intense emotional reactions. As with the pre-disaster phase, the specific reactions also depend on the type of disaster that is occurring. Slow, low-threat disasters have psychological effects that are different from those of rapid, dangerous disasters. As a result, these reactions can range from shock to overt panic. Initial confusion and disbelief typically are followed by a focus on self-preservation and family protection. The impact phase is usually the shortest of the six phases of disaster.

Phase 3—The heroic phase: Phase three is characterized by a high level of activity with a low level of productivity. During this phase, there is a sense of altruism, and many community members exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior. As a result, risk assessment may be impaired. The heroic phase often passes quickly into phase four.

Phase 4—The honeymoon phase: Phase four is characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion. During the honeymoon phase, disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly. As a result, numerous opportunities are available for providers and organizations to establish and build rapport with affected people and groups, and for them to build relationships with stakeholders. The honeymoon phase typically lasts only a few weeks.

Phase 5—The disillusionment phase: Phase five is a stark contrast to the honeymoon phase. During the disillusionment phase, communities and individuals realize the limits of disaster assistance. As optimism turns to discouragement, and stress continues to take a toll, negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface. The increasing gap between need and assistance leads to feelings of abandonment. Especially as the larger community returns to business as usual, there may be an increased demand for services, as individuals and communities become ready to accept support. The disillusionment phase can last months and even years. It is often extended by one or more trigger events, usually including the anniversary of the disaster.

Phase 6—The reconstruction phase: Phase six is characterized by an overall feeling of recovery. Individuals and communities begin to assume responsibility for rebuilding their lives, and people adjust to a new “normal” while continuing to grieve losses. The reconstruction phase often begins around the anniversary of the disaster and may continue for some time beyond that. Following catastrophic events, the reconstruction phase may last for years.

Lesson 23: Be prepared for the aftermath

It turns out one of the worst movies of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space, contains a nugget of wisdom for thinking about disasters: “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Having lived through the Camp Fire disaster, one thing I found that was stark in hindsight but difficult to anticipate was just how much influence disaster movies play on our thinking. In a sense, we all imagine the moment a crisis comes, we wonder what we’d do in the face of danger, and we question how we’d fare facing those trials.

But what about once we’ve survived? What do we do in our own experiences when we pass the moment in a movie where the credits would roll?

“I think we have to preach quite well preparedness,” CALFIRE Chief John Messina told me. “I think everybody focuses on what they can do for their house, and evacuation, but I think people need to mentally prepare for not only what happened that day, but effects after the fire. The fact that the town has been destroyed. Everybody’s lives have been turned upside down, and it’s not going back to normal anytime soon. [It will be] years, if it ever happens. How do you tell civilians that this could happen, that your life will never be the same, you may never be able to go back to your home, your school may never open back up?”

This could be the fuel of 20 columns. But they would boil down to these questions:
• Where would your organization do its work if the building you use is gone?
• What are the essentials that you, your family, or your organization should retain to carry on what is essential?
• What elements do you need in place to make that future possible?

The next time you walk into work, look around and imagine rebuilding that in one week somewhere else. What would that take? The questions coming to your mind now are the ones you should be writing down and answering before you have to.

Lesson 24: Emotions breed rumors

Be ready for a fury of emotions. There will be loss, pain, regret, happiness, humor, joy, and confusion like you’ve felt at no other point in your life. As the emotions you and your community experience run their course, one question will tower over the rest with a wild impatience: Why?

We assume the answers to that question will explain the path that brought us to calamity, even as they illuminate a new path that will bring us back to peace. But the intensity of emotions are almost the perfect enemy of what’s needed to find those answers: clarity and dispassionate judgement. The real facts are clouded by the fog of chaos and the uncertainty of unfolding history.

The emotional turmoil of disasters breeds rumors. Not only are people desperate to get information during a disaster, they’re desperate to give it. Here’s something I experienced while trying to get clarity on just what was unfolding in Paradise even as it burned: I read post after post on social media reporting the town hall, Ace Hardware, and Paradise High School had all burned. One thing they have in common to this day is they are all still standing.

In the chaos, the buildings were surrounded by fire and looked ready to burn. Passing evacuees, fearful, grief-stricken, reported all three had burned. But what they saw was these places threatened; they finished the “story” with assumptions. For even the most reasonable people, the emotions they experience can’t help but create the fuel—a flammable mix of misunderstandings, incomplete information, and more—for rumors.

Lesson 25: Think regional disasters, not just local ones

When I began this series a few months ago, the 2021 fire season in California had not yet begun. But as I write this, the hotels, motels, campgrounds, and shelters of Northern California are filled with those displaced from Chester, Greenville, South Lake Tahoe, and beyond. Hurricane Ida had not yet raged through Louisiana, on its way to dump record flood waters in the Northeast.

When disaster strikes, those effected spread out for hundreds or thousands of square miles. As CALFIRE Chief David Hawks put it in our interview, “Wherever you are, we have to think about what would happen if you had a Katrina, and it flooded the entire New Orleans area. What would happen if we had a fire, and it didn’t just glance across Paradise but burned through Paradise, or an earthquake destroyed the Los Angeles basin? These are all things that we know are at risk, but it’s hard to get your mind around that magnitude.”

In discussions with those planning for future disasters, I’ve been informed of plans to move tens of thousands of displaced Californians around Las Vegas in the event a major Los Angeles earthquake displaces possibly millions of people. So a disaster in one place can transform communities hundreds or thousands of miles away. Houston, after all, is still feeling the changes brought in August 2005 by former citizens of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

CALFIRE Chief John Messina added this: “Every fire we’ve had, before we rebuild, we kinda go back to normal. Even in the major wildland fires we’ve had in the past couple years, things kinda get back to normal because there’s still part of a community there. In [the case of Paradise], things aren’t back to normal yet. I don’t see them getting back to normal for a long time. It’d be easy for me to sit here and tell other fire leaders, ‘Hey, prepare.’ But I don’t think anyone needs to be told that, right? I think we all know that. What we need to start educating people on is post-disaster, and that’s difficult. It’d be no different than that major earthquake that hit San Francisco. We all know that it could come, and we all know that it’s going to be devastating. But I think, truly people think, ‘OK, if it hits, and my house gets destroyed, we’ll be back six months later, driving to work.’ It’s not the case.”

Speaking as a Camp Fire survivor almost three years beyond my disaster, the truth of this is something survivors live with for the rest of their days.

About The Author

Christopher Allan Smith’s picture

Christopher Allan Smith

Christopher Allan Smith is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian and journalist. He is the director of the Emmy-nominated series, A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned From the Camp Fire. He lived in Paradise, California, until the morning of the 2018 Camp Fire, and now lives in Chico, California. Find out more at ChristopherAllanSmith.com.