Photo: Cattle grazing in Granby while East Troublesome Fire blazes just a few miles away.  Photo by William Miller

It was March 15th when the United States Peace Corps announced all volunteers would return home in an unprecedented action. I was personally surprised and that is the moment when I fully realized the gravity of the coronavirus situation.  That is a major blow to the 7,000 volunteers and communities, the thousands of projects, and the relationships that were suddenly cut short.

In a way, I could relate because I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador for five months before the two massive earthquakes in 2001.  They tore apart two-thirds of the country, but luckily, the volunteers were able to remain in-country, in our communities and work through the disaster relief and then rebuilding phases.  I didn’t have to leave, but my volunteer life changed drastically, and so did my understanding of how to persevere through a disaster.

Living through the earthquakes with my community was one of the most impactful lessons of my life.  These people had beautiful adobe homes, simple but adequate living standards, and a lot of fun socializing together.  For the rural Salvadoran, life was not far from the edge of survival, but yet the civil war had ended and life was improving in general.  With the 7.8 earthquake, about one-third of the country was leveled.  80% of the population, or about 30,000 people lost their homes in my municipality alone.   One month after the first earthquake, a second one measuring 6.6 struck.  This destroyed roughly another third of the country.  We had constant aftershocks that finally ended after six months. It was a dark period for us all.    

The thing that was apparent was the psychological toll these events took on the communities.  People could be heard screaming in fear during the aftershocks, we slept in the streets or on the floor for months so we could feel the aftershocks.  It was around the third month that morale reached a low, substance abuse was high and some people lost their tempers.  Desperation was setting in as the rainy season approached and people were still living under tarps.  Food, water, and necessities were scarce and so were the once positive, happy people that originally welcomed me.  It started to get better around the fifth month when more substantial aid and supplies came into the remote regions.  Eventually life became more normal, and we moved forward.  

Working through the disaster was a great experience, overall.  I worked with the local communities to measure the devastation, sent out requests for aid, and distributed it to the rural villages.  Aid transitioned to more durable things such as temporary  metal homes, and eventually I worked with Habitat for Humanity to build permanent homes in that department. It kept me busy and useful, I also created many relationships during that time.

Not only did this year bring about a global pandemic, but in August, the Williams Fork Fire threatened our home.  And then the catastrophic East Troublesome Fire burned the heart of our county at a rate never seen before.  Our disasters partnered with COVID-19 are different from the earthquakes, yet there are similarities.  People have lost their routines, social outlets, livelihood, sense of security, homes and some have lost loved ones.  The first responders are overstretched, and we are being asked to pull together in order to lessen the impact this disaster will have. We are also faced with uncertainty on every level of our lives and a new culture to navigate.

As social-distancing continues and the impact of the fires become more evident, we may experience a decline in the psychological  health of our friends and neighbors, because we are all experiencing shock.  Culture shock is a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation (Merriam-Webster).  It has five distinct phases: 1. The honeymoon. 2. Hostility and irritability. 3. Gradual adjustment. 4. Adaptation.  5. Re-entry shock.  Everyone goes through this at their own pace, but our culture has changed drastically, and a new reality is in place.  Be kind as people may act irrationally as they adjust. 

We will look back at this time and remember it for the rest of our lives.   Everyone is different and will cope with the changes in different ways, but being mindful of our thoughts and actions can be helpful in the long run.  I encourage us all to keep busy, along with adequate amounts of rest.  Read, cook, remodel, get exercise, do art and volunteer to help others.  You may not want to risk exposure to others, but there are many things you can do from your home or safely interacting with organizations.  Getting groceries for a neighbor when you are at the store, calling friends and family to check in, plant flowers to beautify the neighborhood, there are so many things we can do. 

In our region, you can donate your extra time or money to Grand County Outbreak of Kindness, Mountain Family Resource Center,  or the Grand Foundation, who are directly assisting local people and businesses in need.  Look to for information on available resources.  There are many other opportunities as well, but do something good for someone and reach out for help if you need it. 

Robyn WilsonRobyn Wilson has degrees in Sustainable Communities, Bilingual/Multicultural Education and International Business.  Her family returned to Fraser to manage Grandma Miller’s cabin community.