on October 11, 2009
Before I picked up this book, I didn't even know that there was an academic field called "disaster sociology." It turns out it goes back to William James himself, an eyewitness to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake who had the open-mindedness to look at how the people of San Francisco were affected by that disaster without projecting his own prejudices on it. He was astonished; people in disasters don't act anything like how we would expect them to. James' findings have been replicated by studying people in hundreds of historical and modern disasters, and from those studies disaster sociologists have come to some concrete, reliable scientific findings. Solnit believes very, very much that the rest of us need to know what the disaster sociologists know, because our mistaken expectations of what will happen during and immediately after disasters keep making things worse, not better, for the survivors. Before James Lee Witt took over FEMA, and ever since he left, it's been a standing joke that all disasters come in two phases: the disaster itself, and then the even worse disaster when FEMA arrives. This is not a coincidence; Witt knows things about disaster that almost nobody else in America knows, including other first responders, and it showed up in his priorities.
Solnit draws most of her examples from four disasters and their aftermaths, each recounted in detail: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 explosion of an ammunition ship in Halifax harbor that destroyed the city, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, and the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 of 2001. Other earthquakes, hurricanes, bombings, and other disasters are cited for comparison and contrast. And here's what she reports, based on extensive research by multiple scientists into the actual first-hand accounts of people who lived through disasters:
During a disaster, heroism is not particularly rare. Before a disaster, most people predict that they will panic, will react selfishly, will be cowards. It turns out not to be true. Most people don't run away from a disaster, they run towards it to see if they can help. Most people don't trample others to get away, they stop to pick each other up and help each other along. We keep being surprised by the fact that in an actual disaster, we are nearly all better people than we are in our daily lives. Disasters bring out the best in almost all of us. This is the book's single most important finding. It is extensively documented, and that's important, because most people will find it to be the most surprising.
Disaster survivors do not panic. Actual examples of people succumbing to helplessness and going catatonic, or of rushing around destructively in panic, are seldom if ever found. When people self-evacuate, they almost 100% consistently do so calmly, in an orderly fashion, and spontaneously cooperate, even at their own risk, to carry out the wounded and the disabled. Crowds of people have trampled to death the injured and the fallen in the past -- but not in disasters. And once evacuated, rather than succumbing to grief and shock, the overwhelming majority of them move purposefully about, driven by the overwhelming urge to find something useful to do. More of them do find something useful to do, within the first half a day or so, than you would imagine. Those who find something useful to do, however briefly or however little it is, consistently report feeling overcome by joy, not panic or fear or depression or any other madness.
Disaster survivors generally do not rape, loot, murder, or rob. Crime rates go down during disasters, not up. There are almost no documented examples, anywhere in human history, of people taking advantage of a disaster as an opportunity to commit crimes. Two specific examples of things that are called looting have been reported. First, if people need things from inside a home or a store to survive the first several days of a disaster and there is no one there to sell it to them or share it with them, they do take those things; but actual eyewitness accounts of disasters reveal that they are more likely to overpay, to leave money on the counter to cover what they took, than they are to steal. And secondly, there are accounts of people going into buildings that were about to be destroyed by fire or flood to take valuables out. Does it really count as stealing if someone takes a case of expensive cigars from a cigar store that is about to burn to the ground, or takes a flat screen TV out of a building that's about to go under water? Technically, yes, but that's the only extent there is of any documented "looting" in disasters.
Rich people, politicians, and soldiers, on the other hand, consistently do panic, loot, and murder, specifically out of fear that poor people will. This happens so consistently that disaster sociologists have a term for it, "elite panic." Because they fear that temporarily ungoverned people will rape, murder, loot, and rob they send in soldiers under orders to shoot to kill, and shoot to kill they do. Having been instructed to think of the survivors of the disaster as little better than animals, many soldiers abuse the survivors on little or no provocation. In particular, the US Army's reaction to disasters, foreign and domestic, turns out to be execrable, by contrast to the US Coast Guard, the only military unit reported on in the whole book that never succumbs to elite panic, no matter how much political pressure they are put under to do so. Why not? Because disasters are a big part of what the Coast Guard does for a living, which means that the Coast Guard's experienced officers are just about the only "elites" we have who have enough first-hand experience with disaster survivors to know, first hand, what the disaster sociologists had to find out through scientific research.
Even when they don't panic, "leaders" are mostly useless in a crisis. Each disaster is unique. In the first several days after a disaster, society's leaders, governors, rulers, and experts don't know who lived and who died. Among the living, they have no idea who has what skills that can be used. They don't know what resources are still available inside the disaster zone and they don't know which resources inside the zone were destroyed. They don't know what infrastructure still works and what infrastructure has failed. From roughly the 2nd hour of the disaster until at least the third day, maybe later, the only people who know these things are the disaster survivors themselves, and that's why during those first three days, ad hoc gatherings of random survivors do a better job of organizing relief kitchens, digging sanitary latrines, distributing any supplies that are available, and improvising temporary shelter than any top-down disaster response community can be.
If elite panic focuses on a single ethnic group, the result can be particularly disastrous slaughter. It doesn't have to be. San Franciscans stood up for the ethnic Chinese in 1906, and there was no slaughter. But Ray Nagin, in particular, gets singled out for the most personalized and individual hatred by Solnit; his palapable and vocal fear that his fellow black New Orleaners would descend into savagery, and his constant acceptance of and passing along of every rumor to that effect that he heard, resulted in the mobilization of multiple white racist militias who killed harmless black people who were just trying to evacuate or survive, who posed no threat to anyone, and so far the killers have gone unpunished; a similar disaster befell the Korean-ancestry residents of one Japanese city after their earthquake, when that city's local mayor, like Nagin, whipped up fear of and hatred towards them.
For many of society's outcasts and downtrodden, the disaster is not the worst day of their lives, it's the best. For the first 72 hours or so of a disaster, you don't have to worry about losing your job. You don't have to worry about whether or not you have any money. You don't have to worry about what you're going to do with the rest of your life. And a lot of people who've lived on the fringes of society, whether fringe religious groups or outcast Vietnam veterans or the homeless, are people who've accumulated the hard way an awful lot of the skills needed to cope with the sudden loss of everything. For example, after 9/11 one of the most important and popular places for mourners to gather was organized by a handful of rave promoters, assisted by a nearby Buddhist temple, and managed by a dozen or so local homeless guys who used to live in nearby alleys; in hurricane stricken southern Mississippi, one of the most important relief kitchens and disaster response centers was co-organized by a group of Christian missionaries and a group of Rainbow Family volunteers who happened to get there at about the same time. What all of those people felt was tremendous gratitude that someone finally needed the skills they happened to have.
Those are just the findings that jumped out at me the hardest, after a single reading, and Solnit is absolutely right that everybody in the world needs to hear these things, needs to know these things, needs to respond to disaster based on how people actually act, not how we're afraid they're going to act. This is a very, very important book ...
... even though, frankly, it keeps getting tiresome. It took me a long time to read this book, because of one tooth-grindingly awful flaw, and that's Solnit's personal politics. Solnit chooses to read these findings, about how people react in the first 72 hours after a city-wide disaster, as "proof" of her anarcho-communist politics, proof that what we ought to be doing is finding some way to eliminate government, eliminate money, eliminate private property, so we can all self-organize our daily ordinary lives with the joy, purpose, and improvisational brilliance that disaster survivors consistently show. I remain unconvinced, and probably so will you, which makes it increasingly wearying when, every 3 or 4 chapters, she stops talking about disasters and starts talking about some future utopia or about how we should be living our daily lives according to her. My advice is to do what I did, do what you do when anybody with an equally weak grasp on reality starts ranting about politics: smile and nod, and move along. Skim the political rants about the wonders of anarcho-communism until you get back to the meat of the book, the actual useful disaster sociology. It is absolutely worth reading past the dreary fantasy-based leftist anarchism to get all this juicy science-based sociology and psychology in one very readable place. If you aren't already susceptible to anarcho-communist utopian arguments, they're not going to infect you against your will like some disease, but the rest of the book will infect you with something you do need: the realization that in any disaster, with the exception of a handful of us who have clawed their way to the top, the rest of us are all, pretty nearly without exception, better, kinder, and more useful people than we would ever have imagined in advance.