By William Deverell
September 27, 2009
The Extraordinary Communities
That Arise in Disaster
Viking: 354 pp., $27.95
The bad news is that more disasters are coming, arising from any number of sources: climate change, widespread infrastructural vulnerabilities, toxic threats brewed at cellular or weapons-grade levels, seismic or oceanic volatility, and so on and so on. Whatever their cause, disasters will be born of some mixture of human and natural action or inaction, lives will be irrevocably altered, and absurd numbers of people will die.
Yet Rebecca Solnit sees human possibilities inherent in the certainty of big trouble. In "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster," this writer of impressive versatility explores disasters and the goodness that can come to characterize them. A careful student of the sociology of catastrophe, Solnit argues that the human experience of disaster so alters convention that a different social milieu can emerge, if briefly, within them; one distinguished by altruism and the absence of social hierarchies. In contrast to the presuppositions of the powerful (and Hollywood), steadfast about the inevitability of anarchic mayhem and riot, Solnit makes a convincing case for the sheer dignity and decency of people coming together amid terror.
This is no easy task. How to tease out, much less emphasize, threads of hope or community from the shattered spaces and lives of calamity? How can supposedly redemptive, even joyful, qualities emerging amid horror be explored so as to not render the interpreter naive, callous or both?
Solnit is neither naive nor blind to the misery out of which she finds faith forged. In taut case studies of North American disasters that reach from Nova Scotia to Mexico City and from 1906 to 9/11, she blends reportage with research and folds in a kind of theological musing with political enthusiasm. The result is almost always captivating and compelling, not least because she is unusually gifted at mixing dispassionate narration with fervent, first-person experience.
The cataclysmic events make for gripping, if grim, reading. While referencing a litany of disasters across time and space, Solnit focuses on five: the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, an explosion in a Nova Scotia harbor more than a decade later, the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina's 2005 assault on the Gulf Coast. The research is meticulous; where possible, the author has interviewed survivors or witnesses. Solnit's description of the older events is especially compelling as they are less well known and the accretion of a century's time makes them look, sound and feel more exotic once Solnit excavates and narrates them.
Take the case of the Mont Blanc, a cargo ship stuffed to the gunwales with munitions, which was rammed by another ship trying to pass it and then blew up in the Halifax harbor in the winter of 1917. There was nothing remotely ordinary about the event. Three decades had passed since the Indonesian island of Krakatoa vaporized after volcanic action detonated one of the most explosive events in Earth's history; now the Mont Blanc exploded in the largest man-made explosion prior to the advent of atomic bombs. People, houses, what was left of the ship: All flew crazily into the air, coming down in pieces of what once was whole. The shank of the ship's 1,000-pound anchor fell to Earth two miles away. The explosion's effect was veritably nuclear: An air burst and firestorm crushed and burned every building within a mile. The blast ripped the tightly cinched wintertime shoes and clothing from the living and the dead. Windows shattered 50 miles away. More than 1,500 died. Six times that many were injured.
The disaster spurred those victims able to respond into acts of amazing heroism and altruism (and helped launch modern disaster studies no sooner had the fire cooled). A railroad dispatcher, facing certain death, charged into a telegraph office to send an urgent warning to an incoming passenger train only minutes before the ship blew up. "Guess this will be my last message," he tapped out. "Goodbye boys." The train stopped in time, the ship exploded, the hero died.
The nobility of those who died in disasters catches Solnit's attention, as it should, for one of her major aims is to commemorate the mortal heroism inherent to cataclysmic events. But the living claim most of the consideration in this thought-provoking book.
As she takes us through the horrors of earthquake, fire, terrorist attack and hurricane, Solnit analyzes (and appropriately admires) the selfless acts of those thrown together by catastrophe. The prevalence of a kind of post-disaster elation is striking; Solnit argues that the feeling is more aptly characterized as "I'm so glad that we are alive" than "I'm so glad that I am alive." Such survival results in what we might call an instantaneous first-person-plural reflex and this recognition of a survivor community is in turn generative of remarkable acts of altruism; herein the "paradise" emerging from the "hell" of the book's title. Social alienation evaporates, if but for a time. (Solnit finds resilience expressed through dark humor. Her narration of the fatalistic comedy of San Franciscans of 1906 is a high point. My favorite example: the shack cafe sign urging passersby to "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland.")
The practitioners of "disaster studies" -- a lively, if arcane, field that cuts across realms of scholarship, engineering and emergency preparedness -- have long suggested that widespread assumptions about chaos breaking loose amid disaster are largely wrong. Lawlessness is not absent from the confusion of catastrophe: People steal and loot and vandalize. But the scale is inevitably exaggerated in media and other accounts and, Solnit and others argue, thievery is often tied to survival. Much more prevalent (and far less recognized) is community reconstitution along axes of altruism and selflessness.
That this reordering may be viewed as threatening is not lost on Solnit. Her book is sharply condemnatory of what disaster theorists have come to call "elite panic." Fearing anarchy or reorganization (or merely seizing the chance to act with opportunistic cruelty as fires burn or the earth shakes), the powerful can strike out at the weak, the poor or merely the people en masse. Solnit's description of bestial Gen. Frederick Funston, energetically presiding over the military's homicidal show of force meted out to San Franciscans in 1906, is both narration and foreshadow. We've seen it before; we'll see it again.
Solnit writes that "elite panic" is also well served by the sheer elasticity of bureaucratic institutions. Bureaucracies abhor the chaos of disaster, whereas human actors can cut through the disorder either to act humanely or exert brutality. But, in the end, bureaucracy ever reasserts itself to erode both the very good and the very bad that disaster invites.
There's a hopeful, optimistic, even contagious quality to this superb book. Rebecca Solnit sees in the aftermath of disaster a meaningful, if fleeting, coming together; the challenge is how to create similar centripetal force in devastation's absence. For now, disasters seem part of the recipe, and finding and celebrating the human kinship expressed within them is but one step of a longer, harder journey.
At the same time, this is a rumination tinged with watchful anxiety, especially evident if we compare these disasters to one another.
Solnit's outrage at the murderousnessof Hurricane Katrina's vigilantes (individuals or small patrols who indiscriminately shot an unknown number of victims) and the racist cast to these episodes, carries with it several telling points. Might the Katrina experience reveal that the altruistic bonds within cataclysmic communities are less evident just when, as more disasters sit on the temporal horizon, we need them most? What of the even more worrisome erosion of community beyond the contingencies of disaster? Given the inexcusable inertia of appropriate institutions to bring Katrina's murderers to justice months and years later, what does this suggest about the flimsy ties binding us all in everyday life, when the earthquakes and the floods aren't bearing down?
Deverell is director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and currently the Frederick W. Beinecke Senior Fellow in Western Americana at Yale.
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