[Paleopsych] Harper's: The Uses of Disaster

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The Uses of Disaster

Notes on bad weather and good government

    Posted on Friday, September 9, 2005. This essay on the relationship
    between disasters, authority, and our understanding of human nature
    went to press as Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The excerpt
    below is followed by a postscript, available only on the Web, that
    specifically addresses the disaster in New Orleans. Originally from a
    forthcoming issue of Harper's Magazine, October 2005. By Rebecca

    After the storm, 1865

    In his 1961 study, "Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic
    Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies," sociologist Charles Fritz
    asks an interesting question: "Why do large-scale disasters produce
    such mentally healthy conditions?" One of the answers is that a
    disaster shakes us loose of ordinary time. "In everyday life many
    human problems stem from people's preoccupation with the past and the
    future, rather than the present," Fritz wrote. "Disasters provide a
    temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties
    associated with the past and the future because they force people to
    concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment,
    day-to-day needs." This shift in awareness, he added, "speeds the
    process of decision-making" and "facilitates the acceptance of

    The state of mind Fritz describes resembles those sought in various
    spiritual traditions. It recalls Buddhism's emphasis on being in the
    moment, nonattachment, and compassion for all beings, and the
    Christian monastic tradition's emphasis on awareness of mortality and
    ephemerality. From this perspective, disaster can be understood as a
    crash course in consciousness.

    We should not be surprised, then, that what transpires in the
    immediate aftermath of a disaster is nothing like the popular version.
    People rarely panic or stampede, nor do they often immediately engage
    in looting or other acts of opportunism. The Scottish-born
    mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who witnessed the 1906 San Francisco
    earthquake and fire, saw "no running around the streets, or shrieking,
    or anything of that sort" but instead people who "walked calmly from
    place to place, and watched the fire with almost indifference, and
    then with jokes, that were not forced either, but wholly spontaneous."
    Another survivor, San Francisco editor Charles B. Sedgwick,
    noted-perhaps somewhat hyperbolically-that "even the selfish, the
    sordid and the greedy became transformed that day-and, indeed,
    throughout that trying period-and true humanity reigned." This
    phenomenon of "surprising" human kindness and good sense is replicated
    time and again.

    Many official disaster-preparedness scenarios nonetheless presume that
    human beings are prone to panic and in need of policing. A sort of
    Hobbesian true human nature emerges, according to this version, and
    people trample one another to flee, or loot and pillage, or they
    haplessly await rescue. In the movie version, this is the necessary
    precondition for John Wayne, Harrison Ford, or one of their
    shovel-jawed brethren to save the day and focus the narrative. In the
    government version, this is why we need the government. In 1906, for
    example, no one quite declared martial law, but soldiers, policemen,
    and some armed college students patrolled the streets of San Francisco
    looking for looters, with orders to shoot on sight. Even taking food
    from buildings about to burn down was treated as a crime: property and
    order were prized above survival or even reason. But "the authorities"
    are too few and too centralized to respond to the dispersed and
    numerous emergencies of a disaster. Instead, the people classified as
    victims generally do what can be done to save themselves and one
    another. In doing so, they discover not only the potential power of
    civil society but also the fragility of existing structures of

    * * *

    The events of September 11, 2001, though entirely unnatural, shed
    light on the nature of all disasters. That day saw the near-total
    failure of centralized authority. The United States has the largest
    and most technologically advanced military in the world, but the only
    successful effort to stop the commandeered planes from becoming bombs
    was staged by the unarmed passengers inside United Airlines Flight 93.
    They pieced together what was going on by cell-phone conversations
    with family members and organized themselves to hijack their
    hijackers, forcing the plane to crash in that Pennsylvania field.

    The police and fire departments responded valiantly to the bombings of
    the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, but most of the people
    there who survived did so because they rescued themselves and one
    another. An armada of sailboats, barges, and ferries arrived in lower
    Manhattan to see who needed rescuing, and hundreds of thousands were
    evacuated by these volunteers, whose self-interest, it is reasonable
    to assume, would have steered them away from, not toward, a disaster.
    In fact, coping with the swarm of volunteers who, along with
    sightseers, converge on a disaster is part of the real task of
    disaster management.

    The days after 9/11 constituted a tremendous national opening, as if a
    door had been unlocked. The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly
    hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real change often
    emerges. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies,
    buildings, and property but also the status quo. Disaster recovery is
    not just a rescue of the needy but also a scramble for power and
    legitimacy, one that the status quo usually-but not always-wins. The
    Bush Administration's response after 9/11 was a desperate and extreme
    version of this race to extinguish too vital a civil society and
    reestablish the authority that claims it alone can do what civil
    society has just done-and, alas, an extremely successful one. For the
    administration, the crisis wasn't primarily one of death and
    destruction but one of power. The door had been opened and an anxious
    administration hastened to slam it shut.

    You can see the grounds for that anxiety in the aftermath of the 1985
    Mexico City earthquake, which was the beginning of the end for the
    one-party rule of the PRI over Mexico. The earthquake, measuring 8.0
    on the Richter scale, hit Mexico City early on the morning of
    September 19 and devastated the central city, the symbolic heart of
    the nation. An aftershock nearly as large hit the next evening. About
    ten thousand people died, and as many as a quarter of a million became

    The initial response made it clear that the government cared a lot
    more about the material city of buildings and wealth than the social
    city of human beings. In one notorious case, local sweatshop owners
    paid the police to salvage equipment from their destroyed factories.
    No effort was made to search for survivors or retrieve the corpses of
    the night-shift seamstresses. It was as though the earthquake had
    ripped away a veil concealing the corruption and callousness of the
    government. International rescue teams were rebuffed, aid money was
    spent on other programs, supplies were stolen by the police and army,
    and, in the end, a huge population of the displaced poor was obliged
    to go on living in tents for many years.

    That was how the government of Mexico reacted. The people of Mexico,
    however, had a different reaction. "Not even the power of the state,"
    wrote political commentator Carlos Monsivás, "managed to wipe out the
    cultural, political, and psychic consequences of the four or five days
    in which the brigades and aid workers, in the midst of rubble and
    desolation, felt themselves in charge of their own behavior and
    responsible for the other city that rose into view." As in San
    Francisco in 1906, in the ruins of the city of architecture and
    property, another city came into being made of nothing more than the
    people and their senses of solidarity and possibility. Citizens began
    to demand justice, accountability, and respect. They fought to keep
    the sites of their rent-controlled homes from being redeveloped as
    more lucrative projects. They organized neighborhood groups. And
    eventually they elected a left-wing mayor-a key step in breaking the
    PRI's monopoly on power in Mexico.

    * * *

    Americans work more hours now than anyone else in the industrialized
    world. They also work far more than they themselves did as recently as
    a few decades ago. This shift is economic--call it Reaganomics or
    Chicago-style "liberalism" or "globalization"--but it is cultural too,
    part of an odd backlash against unions, social safety nets, the New
    Deal and the Great Society, against the idea that we should take care
    of one another, against the idea of community. The proponents of this
    shift celebrate the frontier ideals of "independence" and the
    Protestant work ethic and the Horatio Alger notion that it's all up to

    In this light, we can regard the notion of "privatization" as a social
    phenomenon far broader than a process by which government contracts
    are granted. Citizens are redefined as consumers. Public participation
    in electoral politics falters, and with it any sense of collective or
    individual political power. Public space itself--the site for the
    First Amendment's "right of the people peaceably to assemble"--withers
    away. Free association is aptly termed, for there is no profit in it.
    And since there is no profit in it, we are instead encouraged by our
    great media and advertising id to fear one another and regard public
    life as a danger and a nuisance, to live in secured spaces,
    communicate by electronic means, and acquire our information from that
    self-same media rather than from one another. The barkers touting our
    disastrous "ownership society" refuse to acknowledge that it is what
    we own in common that makes us strong. But disaster makes it clear
    that our interdependence is not only an inescapable fact but a fact
    worth celebrating--that the production of civil society is a work of
    love, indeed the work that many of us desire most.


    At stake in stories of disaster is what version of human nature we
    will accept, and at stake in that choice is how will we govern, and
    how we will cope with future disasters. By now, more than a week after
    New Orleans has been destroyed, we have heard the stories of poor,
    mostly black people who were "out of control." We were told of "riots"
    and babies being murdered, of instances of cannibalism. And we were
    provided an image of authority, of control--of power as a necessary
    counter not to threats to human life but to unauthorized shopping, as
    though free TVs were the core of the crisis. "This place is going to
    look like Little Somalia," Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of
    the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force told the Army Times.
    "We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat
    operation to get this city under control."

    New Orleans, of course, has long been a violent place. Its homicide
    rate is among the highest in the nation. The Associated Press reports
    that last year "university researchers conducted an experiment in
    which police fired 700 blank rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood in a
    single afternoon. No one called to report the gunfire." That is a real
    disaster. As I write this, however, it is becoming clear that many of
    the stories of post-disaster Hobbesian carnage were little more than
    rumor. "I live in the N.O. area and got back into my house on
    Saturday," one resident wrote to Harry Shearer's website. "We know
    that the looting was blown out of proportion and that much of it was
    just people getting food and water, or batteries and other emergency
    supplies. That is not to say that some actual looting did not go on.
    There was, indeed, some of that. But it was pretty isolated. As was
    the shooting and other violence in the streets."

    As the water subsides and the truth filters out, we may be left with
    another version of human nature. I have heard innumerable stories of
    rescue, aid, and care by doctors, neighbors, strangers, and volunteers
    who arrived on their own boats, and in helicopters, buses, and
    trucks--stories substantiated by real names and real faces. So far,
    citizens across the country have offered at least 200,000 beds in
    their homes to refugees from Katrina's chaos on hurricanehousing.org,
    and unprecedented amounts have been donated to the Red Cross and other
    charities for hurricane victims. The greatest looter in this crisis
    may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus
    and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston.

    Disasters are almost by definition about the failure of authority, in
    part because the powers that be are supposed to protect us from them,
    in part also because the thousand dispersed needs of a disaster
    overwhelm even the best governments, and because the government
    version of governing often arrives at the point of a gun. But the
    authorities don't usually fail so spectacularly. Failure at this level
    requires sustained effort. The deepening of the divide between the
    haves and have nots, the stripping away of social services, the
    defunding of the infrastructure, mean that this disaster--not of
    weather but of policy--has been more or less what was intended to
    happen, if not so starkly in plain sight.

    The most hellish image in New Orleans was not the battering waves of
    Lake Pontchartrain or even the homeless children wandering on raised
    highways. It was the forgotten thousands crammed into the fetid depths
    of the Superdome. And what most news outlets failed to report was that
    those infernos were not designed by the people within, nor did they
    represent the spontaneous eruption of nature red in tooth and claw.
    They were created by the authorities. The people within were not
    allowed to leave. The Convention Center and the Superdome became open
    prisons. "They won't let them walk out," reported Fox News anchor
    Shepard Smith, in a radical departure from the script. "They got
    locked in there. And anyone who walks up out of that city now is
    turned around. You are not allowed to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from
    New Orleans, Louisiana. Over there, there's hope. Over there, there's
    electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go
    from here to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It's a
    fact." Jesse Jackson compared the Superdome to the hull of a slave
    ship. People were turned back at the Gretna bridge by armed
    authorities, men who fired warning shots over the growing crowd. Men
    in control. Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw, paramedics in New
    Orleans for a conference, wrote in an email report (now posted at
    CounterPunch) that they saw hundreds of stranded tourists thus turned
    back. "All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups
    make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge,
    only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply
    told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of
    New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the
    city on foot." That was not anarchy, nor was it civil society.

    This is the disaster our society has been working to realize for a
    quarter century, ever since Ronald Reagan rode into town on promises
    of massive tax cuts. Many of the stories we hear about sudden natural
    disasters are about the brutally selfish human nature of the
    survivors, predicated on the notion that survival is, like the
    marketplace, a matter of competition, not cooperation. Cooperation
    flourishes anyway. (Slonsky and Bradshaw were part of a large group
    that had set up a civilized, independent camp.) And when we look back
    at Katrina, we may see that the greatest savagery was that of our
    public officials, who not only failed to provide the infrastructure,
    social services, and opportunities that would have significantly
    decreased the vulnerability of pre-hurricane New Orleans but who also,
    when disaster did occur, put their ideology before their people.

    Rebecca Solnit
    September 8, 2005

About the Author

    Rebecca Solnit is the author of several books, including Hope in the
    Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, and, most recently, A
    Field Guide to Getting Lost. She lives in San Francisco.

    This is The Uses of Disaster, originally from October 2005, published
    Friday, September 9, 2005. It is part of [12]Features, which is part
    of [13]Harpers.org.

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