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Don’t Give Up: Lessons Learned from a Flooding Disaster

By Sarah S. Kilborne
Author of American Phoenix

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we are in the midst of another disaster. When you’re in the middle of a situation like this it’s incredibly hard to see beyond it. All you can register is the loss, devastation, disbelief, suffering, and the thousands of things that need to be done for immediate relief. Recovery seems a distant probability and to some may even seem impossible.

Having studied disasters for the past decade and, in particular, one disaster that had an extraordinary impact on my family, I can tell you that this is not the end. In fact it could be the beginning of something greater. You don’t know yet. What you can’t do is give up.

My family was in the silk business for many years. In fact, we owned one of the longest family-run silk companies in the United States, William Skinner & Sons, which ran from 1848 to 1961. But the business was completely wiped out in a disastrous, record-breaking flood in 1874 and, like so many business owners today who are reeling from the destruction of Sandy, William Skinner, the founder of the family company, had no idea how he could ever make it back from such unexpected ruin. After the flood waters swept through his village, there wasn’t a brick left of his silk mill and hardly a house left standing. He muttered in shock, “I worked for what I had and now it is all gone.”

People today are saying the same thing. In Bricktown, N.J., Joe Baron, who had worked at Baron’s Dodge Dealership for 23 years said, “I’ve worked all my life. Where am I going to go?” In the midst of helping survivors, Mayor Mauro Raguseo of Little Ferry, N.J., admitted, “I’ve lost everything as well” after a levee failed and inundated four towns, including his own. Everywhere people are wondering what they are going to do.

In the aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874, William Skinner stood out for his unusual resiliency and it was his resiliency that enabled him to rebuild successfully. Here’s what he did and what anyone in this crisis can do.

He accepted the truth. He did not deny the reality of the situation or downplay his losses. He was honest with himself and others about the fact that the waters had changed everything.

He remained optimistic. He had faith that at some point a solution to his troubles would present itself to him.

He explored every option. He weighed the pros and cons of every possible avenue for rebuilding. He accepted that he wasn’t in a position to ignore any opportunity no matter how radical.

He trusted his gut. He refused to cater to other people’s desires, accept loans that he would not have otherwise accepted, or compromise his integrity just because he was in a weakened financial position. He stayed true to himself and his beliefs.

He continued to dream. He never stopped envisioning what he wanted for his family and business and these dreams gave him something to plan for, strive for and rebuild for.

William Skinner, who was my great-great grandfather, not only rebuilt his business from the ground up but he used the disaster as an opportunity to rebuild bigger and better. Furthermore, because of the choices he made at this critical time he ended up growing his silk business into one of the most well-known in America. His business expanded in ways he could never have previously known, all because he lost everything and had to start over. He not only survived disaster, but he achieved his greatest success because of it.

For many people in the aftermath of Sandy, it’s impossible to think of the future. It is too soon. But please take it from history. While the present may be in turmoil, the future may still be bright, brighter than you could possibly imagine, and some of you, I know for certain, will leave a legacy from this tragedy that inspires for generations to come. Just you wait.

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