This post is in part a review of Rebecca Solnit's book 'A paradise built in hell: the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster'.
Rebecca Solnit is one of my favourites. Art historian, feminist, activist, environmentalist, she does a good line in looking at things differently. After Hurricane Katrina i was reading her articles on the weblog TomDispatches, about the aftermath of the hurricane and the way ordinary citizens and the authorities handled it. Of course now we have had our own disaster here in Christchurch, and i was keen to buy the new book.
Her main idea is that after a disaster people come together in new ways, even if only temporarily, and care for each other. How well the citizenry does however can depend on how those in power see them. If the authorites fear the citizens and want to protect property rather than lives, things are likely to be more chaotic and less humane. Her first chapter is about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. While ordinary people formed tent cities and communal kitchens, the authorities took the view that social order was bound to break down unless they took a firm upper hand. And so they burned the city, burned down the very properties they claimed to be protecting, and deprived people of the means of saving themselves.
The popular view of how people behave in and after a disaster would state that people panic, sink down to the worst of themselves, and become selfish. This view sees the populace as needing strong leadership and sanctions to stop law and order breaking down. This view is often held by those in power, and this is why they send in the National Guard. Or the Army, in our case in Christchurch. It is also the thinking behind vigilantism and the fear of looting.
Alongside this view, a sociology of disaster has developed, based on researching lived experience. In fact, people mostly don't panic. They move fast for sure, but they don't necessarily panic. And by and large they don't loot. They may take what they need to set up communal shelter and feed themselves, but actual looting of material goods not related to survival is not common. Moreover, people don't turn into selfish survivalists. They help each other, go to courageous lengths for each other, cross social and racial divides for each other, unless the authorities get in the way.
Solnit thinks that we are prevented from seeing clearly the ordinary best experiences of people because of the popular culture desire for heroes. Heroes come from outside, they usually work alone, they are self reliant and extraordinary. It is easy to see firefighters, for example, as heroes. We overlook people who are just as useful, but don't fit the hero mould. We expect to be saved when really we all got together and saved ourselves.
Reading her book drew out memories of how it felt after the big earthquake here. i was moved reading it. i thought to learn about our other great earthquake, of 1848, which nearly destroyed the fledgeling city of Wellington.
Wellington at the time had about 3000 people and almost all of them survived, but most of the city fell down and the people were thoroughly spooked, most of them being fairly new immigrants. The aftershocks continued for months, and coincided with strange lights in the sky which people thought were volcanic eruptions. In fact it was the Aurora Australis.
The people of Wellington sought meaning in these catastrophic events, as we do, and the most common official one was that the earthquake was the will of God. In fact it was often called the Visitation. Churches were full for months afterwards. It was most gratifying. While no one suggested the earthquake was any sort of punishment for wickedness, and it was attributed to natural causes, it was also seen as a timely reminder for us all to remember our sins and turn back to God. Certainly there was no perceptible break down of society. People just got a bit more churchy for a while.*
i remembered how small scale communities did form after our EQ. We met some of our neighbours properly for the first time. We gradually emptied our freezer onto the barbecue and people came round and ate with us. My neighbour commented on how close we had become, and how when it was all over we would probably go back to how it was before. She was right. We still see each other but we are no longer best buds.
There were indeed acts of generosity and unity all over the place. A man who worked delivering goods in the hospital bought chocolates and delivered them wherever he went, to all the wards and offices. After a week of this the management noticed and chipped in money for him to continue. One red zone couple made a list of everyone in the stricken area, their health and welfare needs, and took it to Civil Defence. Their house became the distribution centre for relief. They looked after over 100 people. A bakery owner just gave away everything to passersby, including my daughter. (No looting there!) A couple whose fruit and vegetable shop was destroyed gave away their stock, and when they were finally able to rebuild, they found their generosity rewarded. Here is Max the grocer:
'One thing the earthquakes have done is make people stop and realise you need community, you don't live on your own. A lot of people had no time, were too busy to know their neighbour. All of a sudden, they've realised you need your neighbour. That's one of the positives of the earthquakes and you need to look for positives.'#
No heroism required.No uniforms, no leadership, no noise. Just purposefulness, unity, compassion, and generosity - the virtues of every day, writ a little larger. For a while, some of us were better people.
*i remember some of the less temperate comments at the time of the Christchurch EQ, that it was indeed punishment for immorality in society. The mainstream churches were not at all keen on this. Their spokespeople made public statements against those comments.They maintained that God loves us and had nothing to do with the EQ. i also remember some comments that the EQ was a sign that God hates the mainstream churches and there was some evidence for this - most of the large churches were very badly damaged including both cathedrals. However, i have observed something more specific - it was the brick or stone churches that were damaged. Clearly God hates bricks. And i have some exegetical backup for this. The first mention of bricks in the Bible comes from Genesis, and relates to the time of the building of the tower of Babel. Thus it is clear that bricks are associated with social chaos and division and lack of communication. Accursed be the bricklayers, those sinners in the service of the fiend that is the demonic brick!
# Quoted www.aadirections.co.nz