by Rebecca Solnit
“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in doing so they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be.”
What happens when a disaster disrupts our communities? If you’ve watched any Hollywood depictions, or followed popular media accounts, the images are immediately of panicked crowds, followed by savage competition for scarce resources. But in the field of disaster studies, crowd panic is found to be far less common, and altruistic, prosocial responses much more the norm. In a large scale disaster, you’re more likely to be helped by your neighbour or your coworker than by an emergency responder or relief worker. So why is the popular conception of how people respond to catastrophic events so skewed? In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit uses six major disasters to examine how the public really responds in a large scale emergency, and how the responses—or lack thereof—by authorities can undermine the altruism, community-building and prosocial behaviour that naturally occur, as well as the role the media can play in perpetuating these misconceptions.
Solnit uses six major disasters, three historical, and three more recent, as her case studies. Working in chronological order, she begins with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, proceeds to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and then turns to the London Blitz. For more recent history, she examines the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 9/11 attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Throughout, she blends these historical accounts with information from the academic field of disaster studies, contrasting these studies and theories of behaviour with more popular conceptions and reports. The case studies are a mix of natural disasters and man-made events; the Halifax explosion was an accident, while the Blitz and 9/11 were deliberate acts of human violence. While earthquakes and hurricanes are natural occurrences, Solnit pays particular attention to how the response of authorities after a natural disaster can create second, man-made disaster, and by contrast, how public response and organizing following a disaster can lead to political change.
A key concept in the book is elite panic, a term coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers University. Both academics in the field of disaster studies, they noticed that while authorities planning for disaster response were preoccupied with how to control public reaction, in fact it was often the authorities themselves that panicked and over reacted. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the acting commander of the Presidio marched the army out in the streets, nominally to provide aid, but in fact essentially instituting martial law in the city without the required approval of Congress. Ordered to shut down saloons and prevent the sale of alcohol, troops went a step further and began breaking into businesses to destroy their stock. Ordered to prevent looting, they shot people who had been invited by business owners to take groceries and supplies before their businesses burned in the fires that followed the earthquake. In fact, the troops were so industrious in the prevention of any possibility of looting, that they also prevented residents from fighting the fires. In each disaster, Solnit demonstrates that the most brutal acts are often committed by those seeking to preserve or restore their authority, not by panicked members of the general public, who are often preoccupied with helping one another.
In several places throughout the book, Solnit takes particular aim at the popular myth of looting in the aftermath of disaster. In a number of the cases cited in the book, including the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, authorities directed police or the military to shoot anyone who tried to take any property, even with permission. Solnit argues that the term looting “conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing.” Taking a television in a flooded city without electricity is theft; taking food, medical supplies, or the means to build shelter or escape drowning is requisitioning. Myths about looting can be particularly harmful because they make people afraid of one another. After Hurricane Katrina, the rumours about looting and violence in New Orleans led authorities in the neighbouring community of Gretna on the other side the Mississippi River to blockade the bridge and refuse to accept any refugees. Solnit also worked with journalist A.C. Thompson on a major story about how white residents of Algiers Point, a suburb of New Orleans, formed vigilante bands to defend their property. Thompson found that this impromptu militia shot at least eleven African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the name of preventing looting. When the general public behaves badly in the aftermath of a disaster, it is often a more powerful group acting out against a minority. Some Germans were targeted in Halifax before it was determined the explosion was accident rather than an act of war by the enemy, and after a major earthquake in Japan in 1923, the minority Korean community was accused of committing arson or poisoning wells.
In contrast to the elite panic is the general behaviour of the public. Solnit argues that “the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave,” and she is able to back this up with ample evidence from academic disaster studies, and her various case studies. In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, the community set up camps and impromptu food kitchens in the city’s parks. After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat owners crowded into the city to rescue the stranded even while authorities argued that it was too dangerous to enter the city. In the Twin Towers, occupants began an orderly staircase evacuation, even when the Port Authority directed residents of the South Tower to stay inside after first plane struck. The accounts from that day include a disabled man who was carried down in a relay by his colleagues. The urge to help one another is powerful, and so many people felt the need to do something, anything, to be of use to the evacuation and rescue operation. Volunteer services available to the victims and rescue workers included everything from food to counselling to massage therapy. This is mutual aid, which means that “every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one way street of charity.”
In addition to altruism and community, Solnit examines the opportunities for political change that can be provided by the upheaval of disaster. She argues that “disasters open up societies to change, accelerate change that was under way, or break the hold of whatever was preventing change.” She is quick to note however that change and progress are not necessarily equivalent. Nevertheless, an opportunity arises. In her account of the Mexico City earthquake, Solnit follows the story of the city’s seamstresses, many of whom worked in sweatshops that were destroyed by the quake. Their employers prioritized saving equipment over saving people, and in many cases disappeared without paying outstanding wages or severance. This led to the unionization of the seamstresses. A housing rights movement also grew out of the disaster, because many homes were destroyed due to the shoddy construction that had been overlooked by corrupt government officials and inspectors. The contrasting cases of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are particularly interesting here, because they both happened under the Bush administration. Whereas the first was used to consolidate power and curtail freedoms in the name of patriotism and safety, the latter opened up the administration to unprecedented criticism and opposition.
I picked up A Paradise Built in Hell following reading Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz, which I reviewed last week. Nawaz cites the book in her acknowledgements as an important source that informed how she wrote her characters’ response to disaster, opting against the more usual depictions of panic. Solnit doesn’t use any pandemics as examples, and indeed a pandemic would seem, by the very nature of contagion, to prevent such altruism and community-building, but Nawaz’s book, despite being written before COVID-19, proved to be a very accurate description of what life has actually been like since the pandemic began. And certainly we now know that the disruption of our ability to gather as families and communities has been one of the most difficult consequences of the pandemic. While it can be uncomfortable to try to think about positive outcomes of horrifying disasters in which people lose their lives, it can also be uplifting to be offered a more positive portrait of human nature in the face of disaster, especially in the midst of one.
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