In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster writer Rebecca Solnit describes how people responded to disasters – from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake to the Halifax explosion of 1917 to New York City after 9/11, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – by taking care of one another (She’s interviewed on CBC’s the Current here; podcast here). Solnit’s Harper’s article The uses of disaster: notes on bad weather and good government preceeded the book, and outlined some of its themes.
A prime example of spontaneous cooperation was the extraordinarily successful evacuation of Lower Manhattan during the September 11 attacks. James M. Kendra, an assistant professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas, estimates that nearly half a million people fled Manhattan on boats — and he emphasizes that the waterborne evacuation was a self-organized volunteer process that could probably never have been planned on a government official’s clipboard.
At 59 Impasse Eddy on Monday, three women behind a blue house stirred a pot of beans and rice, flavored with coconut, spices and lime juice.They started cooking for their neighbors the day after the earthquake. On many mornings, they serve 100 people before 10 a.m.
“Everyone pays a small amount, 15 gourd,” or a little less than 50 cents, said Guerline Dorleen, 30, sitting on a small chair near the bubbling pot. “Before, this kind of meal would cost 50.”
Smiling and proud, the women said they did not have the luxury of waiting for aid groups to reach them in their hilly neighborhood. The trouble was, they were running out of food. They used their last bit of rice and beans on Monday.
After years of interviewing survivors of disasters, and reading first-hand accounts and sociological studies from such disasters as the London Blitz and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, I don’t believe in looting. Two things go on in disasters. The great majority of what happens you could call emergency requisitioning. Someone who could be you, someone in the kind of desperate circumstances I outlined above, takes necessary supplies to sustain human life in the absence of any alternative. Not only would I not call that looting, I wouldn’t even call that theft.
Necessity is a defense for breaking the law in the United States and other countries, though it’s usually applied more to, say, confiscating the car keys of a drunk driver than feeding hungry children. Taking things you don’t need is theft under any circumstances. It is, says the disaster sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, who has been studying the subject for more than half a century, vanishingly rare in most disasters.
Personal gain is the last thing most people are thinking about in the aftermath of a disaster. In that phase, the survivors are almost invariably more altruistic and less attached to their own property, less concerned with the long-term questions of acquisition, status, wealth, and security, than just about anyone not in such situations imagines possible. (The best accounts from Haiti of how people with next to nothing have patiently tried to share the little they have and support those in even worse shape than them only emphasize this disaster reality.) Crime often drops in the wake of a disaster.
The media are another matter. They tend to arrive obsessed with property (and the headlines that assaults on property can make). Media outlets often call everything looting and thereby incite hostility toward the sufferers as well as a hysterical overreaction on the part of the armed authorities. Or sometimes the journalists on the ground do a good job and the editors back in their safe offices cook up the crazy photo captions and the wrongheaded interpretations and emphases.
… The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it “security” — rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.
… Even more urgently, we need compassion for the sufferers in Haiti and media that tell the truth about them. I’d like to propose alternative captions for those Los Angeles Times photographs as models for all future disasters:
Let’s start with the picture of the policeman hogtying the figure whose face is so anguished: “Ignoring thousands still trapped in rubble, a policeman accosts a sufferer who took evaporated milk. No adequate food distribution exists for Haiti’s starving millions.”
And the guy with the bolt of fabric? “As with every disaster, ordinary people show extraordinary powers of improvisation, and fabrics such as these are being used to make sun shelters around Haiti.”
For the murdered policeman: “Institutional overzealousness about protecting property leads to a gratuitous murder, as often happens in crises. Meanwhile countless people remain trapped beneath crushed buildings.”
And the crowd in the rubble labeled looters? How about: “Resourceful survivors salvage the means of sustaining life from the ruins of their world.”
That one might not be totally accurate, but it’s likely to be more accurate than the existing label. And what is absolutely accurate, in Haiti right now, and on Earth always, is that human life matters more than property, that the survivors of a catastrophe deserve our compassion and our understanding of their plight, and that we live and die by words and ideas, and it matters desperately that we get them right.