Emerging After the Storm

Hurricanes used to come and go with only moderate fanfare around the Gulf Coast. Or, so it seemed to Angela Blanchard while growing up in Beaumont, Texas, a "little biddy refinery town about a sneeze from Louisiana." Hurricanes blew in with the kind of predictable regularity that stopped the normal rhythms of life for a bit, brought everybody together, and passed on through.

"When we had a hurricane, we had a party," Blanchard says. "We made gumbo, everybody came, we put water in bottles, and when the water went down, we cleaned it up and forgot about it until the next time."

Now the storms are bigger, stronger, faster—and they come with alarming frequency. Concentrations of population in hurricane regions only increase the damage and loss of lives. The result is what Blanchard describes as an "enormously chaotic world where we live from disaster to disaster without a between."

In the wake of these storms, Blanchard has learned that our systems don't work and that even the smartest people in the world can't figure out what to do. But that's not all she's realized.

"Over and over and over again, there are always amazing people who emerge after the storm," she says. "We think that people just look out for themselves, but we are more caring, more patient, more generous, more giving and more willing to work with each other than we think we are."

As the President and CEO of Neighborhood Centers Inc., in Houston, Blanchard has made a life out of helping communities pull together under difficult circumstances. In her 25 years with the nonprofit community development group, she has witnessed "remarkable moments of grace" that mobilize people in the aftermath of a storm—whether it is a natural disaster or an influx of newcomers to a city where 70 percent of the residents were born somewhere else. In addition to running innovative schools, NCI helps people apply for citizenship status, sort out financial and legal technicalities, and overcome language barriers that keep them at home or in jobs that don't even begin to tap their potential.

Blanchard insists that it is the spirit of the city that makes it all work. Just like her neighbors in Beaumont gathering to make gumbo after a hurricane, people around Houston act with the kind of compassion that comes without thinking. It is something she has seen so many times that it no longer surprises her.

Plus, it's the way she was raised. Her parents, she says, were giving people who grew up on the margins, in a "particularly painful form of Southern poverty." They were married at 17, had eight children before they were 30, and always believed that the future would be better. They taught their children that everyone counts, no one is invisible, and there is always enough to go around.

"We never knew how close to the edge we were," she recalls. "We were always thinking we were the luckiest people in the world."

That world always felt abundant to Blanchard, and it still does, even when she confronts the deeply chronic challenges of urban life in Houston: poverty, unemployment—and in the most diverse city in America—alienation and displacement.

Last year alone, natural disasters displaced 42 million people around the world, changing global patterns of immigration and bringing many new faces to Houston. "Most of them have fled poverty, ignorance, isolation, oppression," Blanchard says. "They're just determined to create a different story for their kids. Their focus is on the future, not on themselves. They have no ideas about working less and playing more. They have an idea about building something."

People in Houston feel a kinship with those who struggle, according to Blanchard. "Everybody knows what that yearning feels like—to want for your work to matter," she says. "We don't care where you're from, we just care we're you're going." The important thing, she says, is to create a place where "there's room for you to put what you have on the table."

Blanchard's goal is to get everybody to the table. Her mother always told her: when you have a party, there are no invite lists. It's either everyone, or no one. "And she meant it," Blanchard adds.