Customer Reviews: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
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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.
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on January 26, 2014
This is a great book and Solnit is a VERY good writer. Her basic premise is spot on, and accurate as far as I have seen. Where I have to disagree with her and rate it at 2 stars is that she sees nothing beyond her agenda. It seems that she takes every example she encounters and turns it into a proof of her premise. She hammers and hammers her ideas, without any space to allow for the possibility that there may be people who have a different experience that falls outside her premise. Some people act badly during crisis. Most rise to the occasion. Some don't. I would like to see space for a variety of experience in this very important book. I gave it 2 stars because it is one sided, but it is an important take on the presumptions of people who plan for disaster and should be required reading at FEMA and Homeland Security. That'll be the day.

You should buy it if you think people are opportunists who will riot at any chance they get. It will open your eyes to an alternate truth. Just be prepared for one perspective only.
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on May 18, 2016
Everyone in Los Angeles needs to read this book before the next big earthquake. In fact, all Americans should be reading this book to counteract the myth of the rioting, murderous, panicking, selfish people who will go berserk during a disaster and need the government and troops to control them and restore order. When the actual disasters are studied, as in this amazing book, the reality is that people come together in close community and direct their own rescue, survival and distribution of resources with a feeling of altruism, generosity, self-sacrifice, and love. As you read through you see that most of the panicking and selfish behavior is coming from the Elites and the government who are greatly disturbed by the people getting along without them. Often when they do intervene it is to the detriment of the devastated community, and sociologists refer to it as "Elite Panic".

Disasters covered include the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the Mexico City Earthquake, the Managua Nicaragua Earthquake, New York City 9/11, and New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina amongst other disasters. Unfortunately for Hollywood Movies, Anya Rand followers, and selfish promoters of I will survive at your expense, the general public is humane, helpful, and caring. The apocalypse, world disasters and other fear based mythology about the animal nature of mankind surging out to destroy civilization is just that: a useful tool for legitimizing government power. Read this book and perhaps we can replace the myth with the truth of our species. We are social, loving, caring and function best as community groups. It is in relationship to others that we find our value.
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on October 15, 2009
I won't rehash all significant points that the other two reviews provide, since these are quite adequate for a basic understanding of Solnit's thesis.

This book is good. The thesis is quite original, and you are thoroughly convinced by the end of the book that disasters and catastrophes are two different things. She brings different sources to bear in making her point, ranging from newspaper articles to eyewitness accounts to interviews she did herself. I found a lot of the information fascinating, and I am glad I read this book (the publisher seems to have forgotten how end notes work, however).

That said, I hesitate to give it 5 stars because of the style. Just as the title of my review states, this book would have greatly benefited from some close editing. Some of the prose is repetitive, and sometimes it strays from the point. For instance, her account of the earthquake in Mexico City bridges at least two chapters, with a large segment in the middle talking about Carnival and Santos. Interesting stuff, but was this needed? Probably not. Sticking to the disasters and the case studies would have made this book 5 stars. I wanted to give the book more credit, but at times it felt disorganized, as if it was a compilation of a series of medium length articles.

All things considered, however, I would recommend this book. Pick it up if you are at all interested in disaster studies.
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on November 21, 2012
It is an interesting thesis, but after a while it just sort of paraphrases what has already been said and then says it again. The concept that people are brought together in crisis is valid and important, I just think it could have been said with fewer words and fewer redundancies.
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on July 17, 2016
Here's a couple of things I take away from this insightful narrative of diaster: Survival may depend on our ability to foster connections and commitments with others, as dangerous as that may seem during a crisis. Authoritarian structures (or rigid beliefs) are poor at helping others--information is lost, commitment lacking, with an utter inflexibility to respond in the moment.

The author presents the paradoxes: planning vs. flexibility; centralized vs. local control. Large, bureaucratic efforts to organize and deliver aid often overwhelm or are ineffective at responding to what is actually needed. Beliefs of the powerful that there will be riots, looting and crime are often self-fulfilling prophecies.

Yet, amidst these troubles, people find their better selves as they do what they can to help their neighbors. These are the connections that more than anything are effective, according to the author.

The best chapter is the last, where the author shows that with increasing diasters resulting from a warming planet, we should prepare ourselves, family, friends and communities for the kinds of support we'll need in the near future.
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on August 26, 2016
I rarely give one-star reviews, but this book is so poorly written that I feel compelled to warn others away.
The writing is choppy at best, jumping from historical events, to the author's personal habits, to bio-sketches of people allegedly shaped by disaster events. But that's actually the least of my criticism.

My strongest criticism is that some evidence presented as historical "truth" is, in fact, not true.

I was beginning to wonder how well researched this book was, when I came across a passage in which the behavior of fire response officials toward Spanish-speaking San Diegans during the 2007 wildfires was compared side-by-side with mass killings of Koreans by the Japanese after an earthquake in 1923. Having lived through the firestorm in 2007, this was shocking at best. So I started researching.

I found an obscure ACLU report in which the organization dug and dug to find abuses during the 2007 firestorm. And the ACLU did find 1 family deported, and a few unkind words of officials to people of color, and one family who was told (incorrectly) that there were no diapers available. But a few unkind words during an event in which more than 500,000 people were evacuated hardly counts as abuse and in no way rises to the level of the 1923 mass killings in which these "abuses" were framed. Indeed, ACLU's overwhelming assessment was positively glowing. ACLU did spotlight the handful of negative reports, but also noted that those appeared to be isolated incidents and not indicative of widespread abuse. Moreover, response services like 211 worked hard to find Spanish-speaking volunteers to work at call centers to ensure that people had access to information and services.

If Solnit plays fast and loose with truth about a recent, verifiable event, why should I believe ANY of her historical accounts???

The ideas latent in this book - that people really are altruistic and helpful - are too important to have been buried with poor research and even poorer writing.

Sorry, Solnit, but you lied about an event I lived through and volunteered for, and you made my fellow San Diegans look like monsters - which is the farthest thing from what actually happened. In fact, in writing about how people's best selves come out during disaster, the 2007 firestorm might have been one of the examples you painted as BEST, rather than worst.
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on September 11, 2014
Rebecca Skolnit's book should become important to us, because we already seem to be working our way through what could well become a whole series of disasters and catastrophes (thanks to the author for clarifying the distinction).

It seems sociologists have been studying disasters for decades, and they've determined that in the face of sudden disaster, histories of specific events show that *the assumption that a collapse of the structures of authority and official response will result in mob behavior* is in terrible error -- it's a myth, an urban legend. Instead, it seems that our neighbors are much more likely to act altruistically and creatively. They are most likely to rapidly improvise ways to effect rescue, meet immediate needs and organize ad hoc encampments and communities that support survival and safety. Describing these grassroots social spaces and the negative reaction of authorities with a clear voice and generous dollops of humor and irony, Skolnit sees in these self-generated kitchens and aid stations a beautiful hint of what our lives could be, if left to our own devices. I love her voice -- and she's a riveting storyteller.

On the other hand, the elites have left behind a marked, bloody history of foolish decisions, well-armed panic and overreaction, fed by a dangerous mythology of looting mobs. Skolnit has confirmed something that should be obvious to those of us who remember the lies we were fed by the media, later disproved: there's a difference between "requisitioning needed supplies" in an emergency and "opportunistic theft", which constitutes looting. Time and again, it seems elites have deployed martial forces against a population struggling to survive, help not particularly on the way.

I loved reading the accounts of people's responses to Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy in comparison to events much earlier in the century, like The San Francisco Earthquake and the explosion of munitions in Halifax -- healthy, heroic parallels that are moving to read. It was good to see the heroism of women and underprivileged youngsters acknowledged. It was good to trace the philosophical underpinnings of our respective stances -- for and against 'the mob'. Initially interested in another of this author's titles, I HAD to read this one first, having been a first responder in years gone by. It spoke to my experience of bystanders' readiness to be of help -- or at least, to bear caring witness.

PS -- Presently, I've got a student who, until recently, was studying to be a cop. This goal was called into question by events in Ferguson and the on-going struggle along the border -- but even more by *the increasingly general militarization of the police*. This is something he doesn't want to be a part of, so he's changed his major to sociology, without particularly knowing where to go with it. I'm thinking of buying my student this book. Maybe it will help him clarify things.
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on March 22, 2010
I really wanted to like this book (_The Nation_'s top book of 2009), and at first I thought I would due to the prose-y writing style. Flowery language for a non-fiction book could have been nice, but instead I came to resent it as overly precious since the "facts" in the book were so subjective and the data sources so questionable.

The book says the same thing over and over again, and the back-up for her statements involves a handful of first-person narratives from over 100 years ago at best, quotes from friends and personal stories at worst. The connections that she establishes between disparate disasters reek of effort, drawing unreliable conclusions from comparing unequal events and glossing over challenging evidence. Her point could have been made concisely in a 3-panel brochure (entitled "People Respond Positively in Disasters"), with the added benefit of saving the reader the trouble of going over the same arguments for 300 pages. Look; *I* just saved you the trouble.

In many ways this feels like a fluff Katie Couric news story--like it could have been called _The Perky Side of Hellish Nightmares_. The author interjects herself into the chapters a lot, which is unnecessary as even without the poetic "I" statements one can't help but feel that her bourgeois background colors her perspective entirely. This is why I came to resent the language used; it self-indulgently covered up for a noticeable lack of substance.

Finishing this book was painful. I get the author's point and don't even necessarily disagree with her; boy, do I feel like she wasted my time, though.
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on November 7, 2009
This is a very interesting book with an entirely new thesis of how posttrauma crowds respond. It reflects more of my experpience of individuals' and groups' behavior after an unexpected trauma. I wish the author would be on the talk shows to challenge the common belief that people are irresponsible and criminal in their reactions to terrible events. The authorities regularly create more problems than they solve.
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