San Francisco-based author Rebecca Solnit explores how people responded to historical and contemporary disasters, from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake to Hurricane Katrina. Her two principal findings contradict conventional expectations, and in Katrina particularly, suggest that what we think we know through media coverage is pretty close to dead wrong.
From movies and TV as well as common philosophies of human nature we expect responses to disasters that range from fearful selfishness to predatory violence. But time after time, as evidenced by reporting and scientific studies, the opposite happens: People share, help each other and work together, Solnit finds. And despite the dire circumstances, they do so joyfully.
This happened in New Orleans, although the catastrophe wasn't reported that way, which follows from Solnit's second conclusion: Authorities like police and military often make matters worse by treating civilians as dangerous criminals, and the media reports from their point of view.
Think of the New Orleans Superdome, which we heard was a nest of violence, gangs, murder and rape. The truth was slower to emerge: no murders, and gangs of young men organized to prevent rapes and to "loot" stores -- for food, water and supplies, with particular attention to the needs of babies and the elderly. That the New Orleans police and white vigilantes murdered black citizens, often rescuers, is documented and is now slowly coming to trials.
Solnit's book ends before the Haiti earthquake, but reporting from there supports these observations: Authorities were often more afraid of ordinary people than they were intent on helping them stay alive.
Solnit's general conclusion is that the existing system, built on fear, "is mitigated every day by altruism, mutual aid, and solidarity, by the acts of individuals and organizations who are motivated by hope and by love rather than fear. They are akin to a shadow government -- another system ready to do more were they voted into power. Disaster votes them in, in a sense, because in an emergency these skills and ties work while fear and divisiveness do not."
There are obvious lessons for the North Coast, where earthquakes are inevitable, but also for the Long Emergency of the Climate Cataclysm future foreseen by David Orr and Bill McKibben, in books reviewed here previously. The heartening part is the ability and willingness of ordinary people to focus on helping each other, because typically that's all the help there is for at least the first 48 hours after a big disaster. But it should also focus disaster planners and especially the military on ways to help people instead of treating them as the enemy.