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The Author Speaks: Disaster Strikes, People Shine

Interview with Rebecca Solnit, author of ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’

Great disasters bring great sorrow and pain. That’s a given. We only have to look southward to Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, devastated by a violent earthquake. How will this impoverished nation handle—survive, even—such dire circumstances?

But major catastrophes—hurricanes, fires, tsunamis, explosions, earthquakes and the like—often result in other powerful feelings among survivors. Whether following the 1906 earthquake that shook San Francisco, or thedisastrous 2005 flooding that came on the heels of the levee breaches in New Orleans, survivors often report a sense of purpose in the aftermath. Profound feelings of community, even a strange sense of joy and freedom, arise among colleagues, neighbors and strangers, all intent on helping one another.

What are we to make of that?

Rebecca Solnit’s new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, is, at heart, a meditation on the psychological and social effects of disaster. In addition to the San Francisco and New Orleans disasters, Solnit writes in detail about what happened after the massive 1917 munitions ship explosion at Halifax, Nova Scotia; the  1985 Mexico City earthquake; and the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, weaving in accounts of many other disasters along the way.

Solnit also raises practical questions about how government should plan for future disasters. She finds current planning to be predicated on restoring order amid chaos. But disorder tends to be overreported by the media, she writes, in part because it fits into a law-of-the-jungle narrative that we’ve come to believe, even though facts fail to support it.

Solnit doesn’t yearn for disasters—who would? But, she writes, when they occur, “the desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful that they shine even from wreckage, carnage, and ashes.”

She spoke with the AARP Bulletin about what we might learn from that.

(Read an excerpt from A Paradise Built in Hell.)

Q. Is there an empowering reason for thinking about disasters in a glass-half-full kind of way?

A. We have a real role in how our own collective lives, our nation, and our world and society turn out. Seizing those opportunities is important, and disasters are sometimes one of those opportunities. It’s not that bad things never happen. But there’s a pattern in which most people are calm, resourceful, altruistic, and they improvise emergency systems that work really well—whether it’s getting the babies out of a collapsed hospital or putting together a community kitchen to feed everybody for the next few months.

Q. Isn’t panic the natural reaction when disaster strikes?

A. Panic is rare, looting is essentially insignificant, people are not terrified and trampling each other to flee from a disaster scene, but in fact are trying to manage a situation. We may in fact revert to some sort of primordial civility.

Q. What does happen?

A. The human nature that appears in disasters is calm. It’s altruistic, resourceful, generous, brave and improvisational. People take care of each other, which offers a satisfaction we hardly have words for—a sense of purposefulness, of connection, of meaningful work, of being absolutely free to communicate with neighbors who are normally strangers. The real problem with the convergence of people who want to help is that you have traffic jams and crowds.

Q. What does this look like?

A. Picture people flowing in, not flowing out. They’re not afraid. They’re afraid they won’t get to participate. That’s sort of why there were police barriers around ground zero after the Sept. 11 attacks. Terrorists were one anxiety, but thousands of people bearing lasagna and noodle kugel and Gatorade were another.

Q. First responders are rarely first on the scene—it’s often bystanders. Should government restructure their disaster plans to account for this?

A. Absolutely. In a city there’s a million of us and 500 of them. We can be everywhere; they can’t. Firemen are incredibly good when there’s a fire, but in an earthquake that turns into fires breaking out everywhere, there are not enough firemen to cope with it. The professionals are spread too thin. But if they approach us as their collaborators before or during a crisis, then they come at it very differently than if they assume we’re in the way and a nuisance. One of the things we need to get officials to do is to stop thinking of us as the enemy, as they did in Katrina. They need to recognize that a lot of the work in a disaster isn’t done or directed by professionals; the rescues and emergency kitchens are projects of the neighbors and volunteers.

Q. And possibly think of an undirected mob as part of the solution?

A. People improvise really well in disaster. Sociologists began studying how people behaved in the wake of disasters years ago, and they reached this remarkable conclusion that most of the stereotypes were false. People do not degenerate into a selfish, competing, violent, turbulent humanity, and they don’t revert to some sort of primordial savagery.

Q. For example?

A. The most overlooked story about 9/11 is that though the most unimaginably terrible thing that could possibly happen in Manhattan did happen, people responded with courage, with grace, with resourcefulness, with enormous calm and generosity. They were not the savages or the hopeless, screaming, panicking hordes that we’re used to seeing in movies. The focus has always been on the loss of life, and the fact that 2,600 people died. But 25,000 people got themselves out of those buildings by helping each other, and remaining calm and peaceful and by not competing. We forget that.

Q. What other legacies from 9/11 should we remember?

A. After those first few hours, people came out and began this powerful conversation many of us have wanted to have our whole lives: about truth, about meaning, about justice, about violence, about peace, about war, about the role of America in the world. People’s hearts and minds were wide open, and in a beautiful way. And even though it might be the worst thing to happen to New York, we need to remember and commemorate that openness—I’m still excited about what people did and who they could be.

Q. How do older populations fare in times of crisis?

A. Seniors are one of the most vulnerable, if not the most vulnerable, populations in a disaster. A lot of the fatalities in Katrina were elderly people. A lot of them chose not to evacuate because of fragile health or finances, and a lot of them were much more vulnerable in incredibly challenging physical conditions after the storm hit.

Q. How can we citizens be better prepared for disasters?

A. The greatest resource we have for surviving disaster is a strong civil society, a strong community immediately around us. Being socially connected—having contact numbers on hand, having people to check up on you, knowing the neighbors and the neighborhood—are all part of surviving a disaster.

Q. Does the sense of community that’s found in the aftermath of disasters last?

A. In Mexico City, disgust with the authorities and solidarity with each other led Mexicans toward a lot of political reform and community involvement that permanently reshaped the country.

In New Orleans, more than a million volunteers have come through the city, and lots of people’s lives—both the volunteers from far away as well as locals—have been permanently changed because of it. Organizations founded in the wake of the storm still exist. A lot of personal, individual and collective transformations are harder to measure, but no less significant.

Q. Do you worry about romanticizing disaster?

A. Disasters are terrible and tragic, and we should do everything we can to prevent them from happening in the first place. I don’t think they are the best place for civil society to have an epiphany. There’s a reason that the book is called A Paradise Built in Hell.

The real point is to look at what does happen in disaster. We should prepare for disaster, but also think about community and the sense of confidence we could have in ourselves, and each other, every day.

Wayne Curtis, a freelance journalist in New Orleans and author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, can be reached through

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