Tag Archives: Lee Clarke

Haiti, Disaster Sociology, Elite Panic, and Looting

Book CoverIn 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.

That the victims of disaster have a substantial ability to self-organize to help themselves is one of the recurring themes of disaster sociology, as I mentioned on Resilience Science previously:

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.

Or following the Haitian earthquake a  New York Times article Fighting Starvation, Haitians Share Portions writes:
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.

However, there is a more negative side to the response to disasters in which authorities, fearful of disorder, take a command and control approach that at best stops people from helping themselves and at worst ends up with massacres of civilians.  What disaster sociologists, like Lee Clarke call the panic myth (pdf) – that people will run wild in the absence of authority – is the opposite of what is found in disasters, rather there is sometimes “elite panic”, when after a disaster the powerful imagine that the public is a source of danger, and then elites begin protecting property and stop people from acting to help themselves.This reponse was vividly demonstrated in the incompetent and inhumane response to Hurricane Katrina (e.g. The bridge to Gretna and  Zeitoun).