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Book: The good in disaster

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Attitudes toward disaster seem to run a continuum, from “preppers” who have months of food and water stockpiled in armed bunkers to those who expect the government to come to the rescue at the right time with the right supplies.

Rebecca Solnit has good news and bad news for everyone.

Her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster” (Penguin, 2009) confirms something well-known among disaster relief agencies.

Disasters are bad, yes, but not everything that happens during or after a disaster is bad.

For both the preppers and the other extreme (hopers?), Solnit has both good news and bad news. Solnit is, at times, short on research and long on the philosopher William James, but her anecdotal information is consistent with that of other authors and supports a few key concepts in disaster response.

Neighbors help neighbors

An episode of the television show, “Preppers,” on the National Geographic Channel featured an underground bunker with holes in the railings along the steps. The holes turn the railings into flamethrowers to incinerate the marauding crowds who want to kill the occupants and take their food.

It’s not going to happen.

In a disaster, neighbors help neighbors, responding the fastest to collapsed buildings and injured persons.

Disasters drown the lines of race and class, topple suspicions, erase the previous order and create the opportunity to begin anew. When everyone is homeless, the line between rich and poor becomes faint.

Fear the elite

However, there are powerful forces in government and business who benefit from the existing order. They panic and they use lies to justify aggression in the name of reestablishing the system that benefits them.

For example, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005. On August 31, Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco called police and National Guard off search and rescue to focus on combating looting.

In other words, forget about lives. Protect property.

Exactly what is looting? Sure, some of it is people taking an opportunity to steal luxury items. Good luck getting that TV through flood waters and home to where you can plug it in.

That happens, but much less than what is portrayed. Much more often, “looting” applies to survivors going to stores to take food and fuel and clothes and materials to build shelters. There’s no open registers and no staff to run them.

The lie of looting costs lives. Owners stay behind to protect their property and die in the storm.

Police in the suburb of Gretna blocked a bridge to keep poor and African-American residents of New Orleans out, away from dry land and food and shelter. An armed force let them suffer and die rather than risk being "looted."

Other lies

Looting is, by and large, a lie, even though it's taken as intrinsic to disaster.

So is panic, the assumption that telling the masses about a threat will induce mindless and dangerous behavior.

It doesn’t happen.

Consider the events of 9/11/01, when the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, over Pennsylvania, learned about the two planes that struck the World Trade Center.

The ordinary citizens on that plane, knowing that they were going to die, did not panic. Instead, they mustered the only effective resistance of the day, bringing the jet down in a field in Pennsylvania and saving the Capitol or the White House and possibly hundreds or thousands of lives.

Compare that to the professional response. The Pentagon was an obvious target in an obvious target, Washington, D. C. Almost an hour after the first plane hit a tower, the military was not ready to defend itself, and so more persons died.

Do you remember New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass telling Oprah Winfrey that babies were being raped in the Superdome?

It didn’t happen. By the way, with no one able to get in or out, with no cell phone service in that area, how would he know?

The stories about survivors shooting at rescue helicopters and raiding hospitals for drugs? As Sheri Fink detailed in, “Five Days at Memorial,” these things didn’t happen.

When the National Guard finally relieved the Superdome, they brought hundreds of body bags, based a need drawn from news reports. How many did they actually need?

Six, for the four natural deaths, one overdose, and one suicide.

Mass regression to savagery does not happen

That’s it. There will probably be individual cases of depravity and some specific individuals will take advantage of the situation.

Being prepared, alert, skeptical, and cautious is a good idea.

Realize that you are responsible for yourself, at least for awhile, and know that the danger may not come from expected sources.

You're not going to panic anyway. Neither will your neighbors.

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