The power of your story.
Story Collection Interview with Lillian Spina-Caza
I interviewed Lillian Spina-Caza about her Hurricane Irene Story Collection Project. A flood-affected Schoharie resident herself, Lillian observed that the recovery that came together so quickly occurred in large part due to the sheer number of volunteers who came to assist after Hurricane Irene. She thinks that feelings of collective efficacy or a sense of “We are all in this together and we can do it” may be at the heart of the recovery process. She adds that believing that you can go forward when things seem impossible and finding creative ways to problem-solve are also key to recovering from a natural disaster.
***You can help us by taking part in a Story Collection Volunteer Survey (when taking this survey you can choose to remain anonymous, or you can let us know if you want to be contacted for an interview).***
“The flood changed us”
Lillian Spina-Caza was finishing her PhD at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and writing her dissertation when Hurricane Irene flooded her home and reached about 5.5 feet on the first floor. Like many others, her family was completely overwhelmed by the destruction. The day after the flood she and her husband and eldest daughter came to assess the damage. It was devastating, but the family made the decision to come back the next day to start cleaning up (including all three of her daughters). Lillian remembers that it wasn’t a matter of if they would return but how. As soon they began the mucking out process volunteers – at first mostly family, neighbors, and friends – came to help.
“I can do this”
On a trip to the Dollar General for supplies in the very early days of the clean up process, Lillian and her oldest daughter who was 16 at the time walked by a large stack of kitty litter on sale and had a flash of inspiration. The two loaded up a shopping cart with as many bags of kitty litter as they could fit and spread the litter around her house to absorb the flood mud and water. This creative idea to use kitty litter saved the original wood floors. Lillian said it was this type of on the spot or improvisational thinking that gave her the feeling of “yes, we can do this. We will survive.”
She says that when her family made the decision to stay and started the recovery process, volunteers arrived, giving her family the strength to keep working to get back into their home. She said at times it felt like “If you ‘rebuild’ it, they will come.”
Working together with Cynthia Smith from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s community service program, Ellen McHale of the New York Folklore Society, and Sarah Goodrich of Schoharie Area Long Term (SALT), Lillian helped coordinate a story collection project that began on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day this past January.
What are the goals of the story collection project?
- The Schoharie Creek Basin experience an historic event. The stories from the volunteers will provide rich descriptions of what actually happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and become part of local history.
- To discover the correlations between volunteerism and speed of recovery
- To both celebrate volunteerism and to better understand who volunteers and why, and why volunteers have returned time and again to the Schoharie Valley. Many of the affected had similar stories of being inspired by the volunteers who came day after to day to help.
- To better understand and articulate why SALT has been called a model recovery program by Governor Cuomo and how this model might provide other communities with tools to help them deal with natural disasters.
- To find connections between media coverage and volunteer rate, as well as what kind of media reached people, such as flyers, television, texts, and social media.
- Volunteer survey data will be compiled into data visualizations that can provide a better understanding of how the recovery process unfolded and to explore connections between volunteerism and recovery that might not otherwise be realized.
- A website will be created to provide a place where interviews with both volunteers and Irene survivors can be stored for public access and research.
Why would I want to share my story?
The story collection team hopes that by telling stories people will be able to become stronger as they see how far they have come. Sharing stories can also relieve some of the stress and anxiety that many people have kept to themselves – telling stories can be a way of letting go of some of these feelings and both volunteers and flood survivors can experience the benefits. Most importantly, sharing stories can help impacted communities recover together instead of going it alone.
“Wall of Angels”
Lillian’s own interaction with volunteers led her to “gain a new perspective on humanity and the goodness in people.” As volunteers came, she and her family wrote down everyone’s name with the hope that the family could thank everyone someday. During the demo of the walls, she found an old photo hidden in the walls of her house left by an anonymous previous home owner. This gave her another creative idea: as a way to leave the story of the volunteers with the house for the next homeowner, Lillian and her family wrote the names of every volunteer on the wall board before putting in insulation. There were so many names, they filled the entire dining room and had to continue into the living room. She calls it their “wall of angels.”
How is Lillian’s family doing today?
Because of volunteer help, her family was back in their house by December, four months after the flood. Lillian finally finished her dissertation in 2012 and now teaches at RPI. Her eldest daughter is studying at the University of Rochester and is an active member of “Engineers without Borders.” Her chapter is working on a water tower project for a school in the Dominican Republic. The family has always believed in the importance of community service but now – after meeting and working with hundreds of volunteers to rebuild their home and lives – are committed to paying it forward whenever and wherever they can.
You have a story to be saved.
If you have volunteered to help out in the aftermath of Irene or you survived flooding in the Schoharie Valley and want to share your stories with us, please contact the SALT office and either Lillian Spina-Caza or Ellen McHale will contact you.
So far they have collected about 30 stories from residents and volunteers. The first event was in January 2014 on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. More events will be planned this fall and also next spring and anyone who volunteered or survived the flood is invited to tell his or her story.
Salt office number: (518) 702-5017.
You can also help us by taking part in a Story Collection Volunteer Survey (when taking this survey you can choose to remain anonymous, or you can let us know if you want to be contacted for an interview).