In the Wake of Cataclysm, Life Goes On


It took only a few minutes on the afternoon of May 31, 1970, for an earthquake to shake loose a giant slab of snow, rock, mud and ice in the Peruvian Andes and hurtle the debris into the valley below, where it extinguished 66,000 lives. The avalanche buried one town, Yungay, but spared 10% of its villagers.

What awed outsiders who studied the aftermath of the calamity was that, within two weeks, farmers and marketers of Yungay had resumed commerce in the resettlement camps. As soon as six months later, people began to remarry, form new families and have children. Now, nearly 30 years later, the Yungainos have reached their original population. There is a new generation that has no memory of the old Yungay. There are new buildings that bear the mark of the outsiders who built them, new customs and new leaders.

“They couldn’t ever find a really good explanation for what happened to them,” said anthropologist Tony Oliver-Smith, a professor at the University of Florida who studies how societies respond to disaster. “But what they could find was a reason for living--the survival of Yungay.”

In Papua New Guinea, an earthquake-triggered tsunami on July 17 swept away villages and an estimated 2,000 people, including what some suggest may be a generation of children. When the shock and the horror of the immediate crisis passes, experts predicted, the islanders, if they are like most survivors of the world’s worst storms, fires, hurricanes, bombings or epidemics, will eventually regroup, assimilating the baffling tragedy into their collective identity. The struggle for meaning, experts said, could affect every aspect of the culture, and touch individuals for years, decades and even generations.


No matter if they have defied death by flood in Pennsylvania or by volcanic mudslide in Colombia, survivors first try to explain the event to themselves, Oliver-Smith said. “Events of this nature place in danger that sense of life having a sense of logic, a sense of justice. Very few cultures are equipped to come up with answers for this kind of cataclysm.”

Historically, in countries with frequent natural catastrophes such as India and Mexico, cosmologies of destruction and reconstruction developed over time, New York anthropologist and writer Susanna Hoffman said. “Frequently, the god of destruction is also the god of creation, like Pele in Hawaii or Kali in India,” she said. Some people in Papua New Guinea may see the tsunami as a portent of the millennium, a punishment or a warning from God, other experts suggested.

Almost all survivors of natural disasters organize ceremonies at the site to reestablish their culture, Hoffman said. But some are so overwhelmed by their experience, they can’t even bear to talk about it. Only in the past few years, for instance, have people in Galveston, Texas, started to talk openly about the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, a storm that killed at least 5,000 people on the barrier island on Sept. 8, 1900. Little more than three months after a hurricane and tidal wave destroyed a sixth of the town’s population, forcing gruesome mass burials, the Christmas edition of the local paper barely mentioned the event.

“A lot of people don’t realize this natural disaster even happened,” said David Bush, spokesman for the Galveston Historical Foundation. “The attitude was get over it and move on.”


Survivor descendant Linda Macdonald, however, remembers every word of the detailed story her grandfather repeatedly told--every time the wind blew--about the evening of the storm: the howling winds, the cries in the night, how family members saved themselves from being washed away by chopping holes through the second-story floor to let the flood waters stabilize the house. She made sure her children also know the story. “I think it helps to bring about a real appreciation of life,” she said. “Some may think it happened in 1900, a long time ago, but no, it happens all the time. It can happen in a fast-food restaurant or in Oklahoma City, where all of a sudden something goes amiss, and your life and the lives of people you care about are changed forever.”

Now, everyone wants to share what their relatives went through, said Macdonald, co-chairwoman of a committee to mark the 100th anniversary of the storm in 2000. She said, “Inside every native Galvestonian, there’s a story dying to get out.”

In some communities, anxiety from a traumatic disaster can be passed on to subsequent generations long after roads have been rebuilt, stores and schools reopened. A decade after a Feb. 26, 1972, downpour triggered the collapse of a coal-sludge reservoir that killed 125 people and left 4,000 homeless in Buffalo Creek, W. Va., residents of the Appalachian hollow remained apprehensive about letting children wander too far from home, researchers said. In some cases, they had passed on their fears to children who had not even experienced the disaster, said Kenneth Manges, a Cincinnati psychologist who joined a team evaluating the community in 1982.

Children who did not see the flood were drawing black-crayoned pictures of “people floating on water, people waving matchstick arms on the sides of hills, people washed up on the banks of the creek,” wrote Yale sociologist Kai T. Erickson. “The scene has become a permanent part of most children’s recollections.”


In mobile societies, people sometimes move far from the scene of a disaster, but most survivors tend to stay and rebuild their communities. “I’m not sure we understand place attachment,” said writer Hoffman. “All mammals need a territory they know and understand. Maybe it helps end the alienation. When people are displaced, the alienation is tremendous.”

A survivor of the 1991 Oakland firestorm, Hoffman said that, while she moved on, many of her neighbors rebuilt their homes. “The men returned to the hunting grounds they knew, their businesses, the women to the gathering areas of the local Safeway.”

Some experts suspect that because they live closer to death, disease and disaster, traditional villagers in other countries sometimes have better ways than people in the industrialized world of dealing with catastrophes. Westerners looking at Papua New Guinea “must disabuse ourselves of the notion that these are isolated people and somehow must start from scratch and wait for outside support,” said James N. Anderson, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley.

“Even if a community isn’t terribly close, it is just astonishing how fast they get together and organize their own survival,” he said. “We’re one of the only people in the world who leave it up to the local, state or federal government to work up a disaster plan.”


In 1979, six hours after a tornado had struck, he visited a Filipino village he had previously researched. There were no deaths, but there were many injuries, and houses and food supplies were destroyed. “I was astonished to find out that 18 hours later, they had already picked up the worst of it, taken care of the most vulnerable people and put the roofs back on.

“The thing that impressed me the most was that people had never talked to me about this. They just have a plan in their heads.”

In another case, he said, after hundreds were killed and made homeless by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in Luzon, Philippines, a band of farmers regrouped. “They moved on into other areas where they hadn’t farmed on the other side of the mountain that was not as badly hit and managed to make it. They are still living on the slope of Mt. Pinatubo today.”

Anthropologists said that despite the modern image of a global village united by commerce and the Internet, many Westerners are ignorant of disasters that have killed thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people regularly in Third World countries. In 1985, about 25,000 people were killed after a volcano erupted in Armero, Colombia. In 1988, an earthquake in the former Soviet republic of Armenia killed 25,000 and left 503,000 homeless. “Heavy flooding of China’s Yellow River kills 50,000, 100,000, 200,000 people at a crack” every few decades, said Stanford Demars, a geography professor at Rhode Island College. As the world population increases, experts expect the human and economic toll from disasters to increase.


How the survivors of Papua New Guinea will reconstruct their villages and their families remains to be seen. “It’s going to be tough for them,” Demars said. But “there are examples from all over the world community of people who rebounded reasonably well from that kind of loss.”