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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?

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