TERRY PRONE: Events of natural disaster can bring out the very best in people

Elite panic is the fear engendered in the governing classes that a natural disaster will provoke the non-governing classes to get above themselves, will release them to loot, murder and pillage, and generally, in the absence of normal restraints, reduce society to chaos

THE force of the water was terrifying, as was the realisation that sandbags were not going to keep it out of homes and businesses. Being plunged into darkness and cold, albeit for good safety reasons, was not fun. The final insult was when families found themselves reliving the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”.

As the engineers work on the damaged plant and insurance companies brace themselves for clams from impoverished homeowners, the unmeasured and immeasurable contribution of volunteers cannot be forgotten. Over the past week, they rescued, salvaged, comforted and revived. News bulletins recorded the fact that “the Defence Forces, the Civil Defence and volunteers worked through the night” in several sodden areas. Of the three, the volunteers were there first, ferrying stranded people in boats to high ground, They have provided shelter and clothing. They have made sandwiches and pots of tea.

While doing all of this, when captured on camera, they have not looked virtuous or serious. They’ve been laughing as if they were having a great time. If it is suggested that they were feigning laughter in order to keep up the collective morale, the evidence gives the lie to the suggestion. This laughter came out of the rush of adrenalin, the incongruity of the activity – and the joyful certainty of being needed.

The laughter that bubbles up in the face of unprecedented physical challenges was one of the factors that fascinated William James, the father of psychology, in the immediate fiery aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

“Physical fatigue and seriousness were the only inner states that one could read on countenances,” he said. “Every one looked cheerful, in spite of the awful discontinuity of past and future, with every familiar association with material things dissevered; and the discipline and order were practically perfect.”

James concluded that individuals carry “stores of bottled up energy and endurance” within themselves which find expression only in extreme situations.

Historic accounts of San Francisco demonstrate those stores of bottled up energy and endurance being productively deployed from the moment the fires began to blaze. While the post-earthquake tremors continued to shake the ground beneath them, public servants working for institutions like the Post Office ignored instructions to flee, and saved their own places of employment by skilful concentrated collective action. Private citizens whose homes had been destroyed begged, borrowed and stole food, coffee, tea and milk to set up impromptu cafes in the wreckage, which provided centres of contact and comfort for other survivors. This they did despite the officious pointless interference of military men who felt threatened by spontaneous action on the part of the citizen.

The same unproductive military meddling has characterised many more recent US disasters, most notably Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where the bottled up energy and endurance, the capacity to volunteer and organise spontaneously, have been stifled by heavy-handed military action, incompetent bureaucracy and what has been called “elite panic”. Elite panic is the fear engendered in the governing classes that a natural disaster will provoke the non-governing classes to get above themselves, will release them to loot, murder and pillage, and generally, in the absence of normal restraints, reduce society to chaos. During Hurricane Katrina, so much energy and resources went into the attempt to control and regulate the potentially lawless that countless lives were needlessly lost. Volunteers who were doing a good job of rescuing hurricane victims were prevented from completing the task, and in some cases were actually shot by trigger-happy military convinced that ground-up action was necessarily dangerous to a community.

According to reports from the areas worst hit by the flooding in our own country, that didn’t happen here. The army did their job superbly, demonstrating yet again that the least appreciated, most reliably professional element of the public service is the Defence Forces. They did their job and they let volunteers do their job, co-operating wherever possible.

What is instructive is the natural emergence of a volunteer corps. The natural emergence of competent volunteer forces in an emergency fits with sociologist Charles Fritz’s theory that those emergencies provide what prosperous routine times do not: a way to fulfil the basic human need for community identity. Fritz saw this side-effect of disaster as so important, he described natural calamities as “social utopias”. Yes, people lose their homes, their businesses, their property. But at the same time they experience the organised kindness of strangers, together with the paradoxical freedom that comes from the abandonment of possessions.

Volunteer rescuers (who, statistically, tend to save more lives than do the emergency services) are disregarded by the media because media tends to arrive along with the “official” disaster responders; the police, military and corps of engineers. Media have the habit of relying on official sources for clear soundbite responses which carry more clout with the viewing public than the story of an unofficial volunteer rescuer.

Media prefer the ordinary punter to be in victim mode, ideally weeping noisily over their loss. Chirrupy volunteers don’t fit easily in the traditional TV disaster narrative. So we will see more pictures of residents in the flood-stricken areas looking at their destroyed possessions or queuing for water than we will see of them doing the rescue work they excelled in over the past few days. The image will be one of pathos and passivity, rather than euphoric coping. Mass media can cope with one individual showing boundless courage and resource – think Orla Tinsley, the activist for Cystic Fibrosis patients – because that individual can become an identifiable hero. It’s not as good at capturing collective heroism, particularly when it takes unromantic forms like the making of hundreds of sandwiches.

The puzzle is that the same collective action hasn’t been seen in response to our wider national calamity, the collapse of our economy.

But then, according to Rebecca Solnit, historian of disaster response, that may be explained by the differences between a natural disaster and an economic crisis.

“An essential feature of disaster is that the threats and dangers to the society come from outside the system and their causes can usually be perceived and specified,” Solnit says. “This contrasts with many other crises where the threats arise within the system and it is difficult to isolate and identify a widely agreed-upon cause.”

Or, to put it more crudely, we can pull together to do something about a flood, and feel good in the process, whereas negative equity and salary cuts leave us bailing for dear life – on our own.

* A Paradise Built in Hell – the Extraordinary Communities that arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit, is published by Viking.


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