Saturday, November 14, 2009

The First of Three Women

Rebecca Solnit is the author of ten books, including the recently published book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disasters (2009). In the book, Solnit surveys several disasters over roughly the last century, including the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Her central thesis is that "disaster throws us into the temporary utopia of a transformed human nature and society, one that is bolder, freer, less attached and divided than in ordinary times."

Many engineering organizations and professional societies are reinforcing their efforts in the areas of disaster planning, and post-disaster investigations, planning, and engineering. Events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have exposed disaster planning and response efforts and issues within segments of our critical infrastructure. Clearly the engineering, construction, and technology components of this are highly important, however another critical part of disasters that engineers should understand are the social and humanistic components. Sort of the "social intelligence" understanding that engineers should have with respect to the disaster topic line.

As Solnit writes with respect to the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake - people opened their homes to strangers or simply gathered in the streets to create improvised rooming houses and cafes. What many written reports emphasize is not the hardship but almost party like atmosphere that come with having survived and then rediscovered a place in the community. The joyful aftermath of a disaster, Solnit writes, "is by its very nature unsustainable and evanescent, but like a lightening flash it illuminates ordinary life, and like lightning it sometimes shatters the old forms."

Solnit argues that evidence and research does not support what is typically seen in Hollywood disaster films. The public almost never panics en masse, let alone runes wild: People tend instead to be calm, clear headed, competent, and surprising altruistic. Indeed, ordinary citizens are not only the first but quite frequently the best responders to disasters. Official efforts can go wrong precisely because they are excessively paternalistic, militaristic, and authoritarian.

Solnit believes these ephemeral utopias raise radical possibilities for social arrangements (What white elites tend to fear more than the disaster - is the social destabilization that they believe will follow. Some of the heavy handed mixtures of racism and fear demonstrated in New Orleans after Katrina get at what Cormac McCarthy wrote in his novel The Road - ". . . in the history of the world it might be that there was more punishment than crime . . ."). But they go largely unappreciated, due in large part to the mainstream medias adherence to preconceived narratives that have more to do with Hollywood Solnit claims, than with actual events. At best, ordinary citizens are depicted as passive victims who linger in the disaster area until they are rescued by the authorities. At worst, they are seen as dangers to themselves and to each other, prone to panic, looting, and violence. Only one thing can head off chaos: swift and decisive action by the police, the military, and authorities.

Dave Eggers also ways in on disaster social networks and individual efforts. In Zeitoun (2009), Eggers tells the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the owner of New Orleans based Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC., and his individual and group efforts during the aftermath of Katrina. With the aid of friends and a canoe, he was able to rescue countless people and families. He was latter arrested and jailed by New Orleans authorities on suspicion of terrorist activities. The following passage by Eggers points out some of the issues that Solnit has brought up:

In New Orleans, Zeitoun was invigorated. He and never felt such urgency and purpose. In this first day in his flooded city, he had already assisted in the rescue of five elderly residents. There was a reason, he now knew, that he had remained in the city. He had felt compelled to stay by a power beyond his own reckoning. He was needed.

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