A Paradise Built in Hell

When disaster strikes, ordinary human beings very often do extraordinary things.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster By Rebecca Solnit Viking 353 pp., $27.95

Disasters are terrible, awful things. No one could dispute that. But what do those extraordinary events tell us about ordinary humans? One view is that disasters crack society’s fragile social norms, releasing destructive primitive instincts in the form of hysteria, panic, crimes, and other acts of ruthless self-interest.

Another view says that disasters actually release what is best and, ultimately, most authentic about people, spawning amazing acts of compassion, generosity, courage, and self-sacrifice.
In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit argues strongly on behalf of this latter view. And because it is overwhelming true in most cases, she says, it suggests new ways of thinking about how governments should approach disaster relief.

Looking principally at five North American disasters of the past century, Solnit finds that people caught in them generally behave remarkably well. Often the “heroes” of the disasters aren’t police or other official workers, but ordinary people caught up in the event, who organize themselves to do what is needed.
“In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them,” she writes. “The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it.”
Those who study disasters already know this, she says. The research includes more than 700 studies of disasters showing that public panic is rare.
An engaging book, full of fascinating detail, “Paradise” especially deserves a close reading by political leaders at every level, as well as the news media who cover disasters.
While research and statistics get their due here, Solnit’s book speaks most eloquently through the stories of individuals.
A young Muslim man from Pakistan, Usman Farman, who was near the collapsing towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, tells how he had been running from the cloud of debris mushrooming toward him and had fallen down. A Hasidic Jewish man grabbed his hand, and “with a deep Brooklyn accent he said, ‘Brother if you don’t mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand, let’s get the hell out of here.’ He was the last person I would ever have thought to help me. If it weren’t for him, I probably would have been engulfed in shattered glass and debris.”
On the waterfront, an armada of private boats of all sizes and shapes conducted an evacuation of perhaps 300,000 people from lower Manhattan, a spontaneous citizen-led effort that matched in size the famous evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk during World War II.
In the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, in which thousands were left homeless, Anna Holshouser didn’t wait for the Red Cross to arrive. She stitched together blankets and sheets and made a tent to shelter 22 people. Then she started an outdoor free soup kitchen, as did many others.
A sardonic humor filled these impromptu camps. Her kitchen became known as the “Palace Hotel,” after the city’s largest hotel, which had burned down. Another sign at an outdoor kitchen announced: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may have to go to Oakland.” Most of the city’s slaughterhouses gave away their meat for free to everyone – white, black, or Asian – until the supply was exhausted. Two firms that decided to hoard their meat found it rotted in their warehouses.
Living through the San Francisco quake as a child had a powerful effect on early 20th-century social reformer Dorothy Day: “I wanted every home to be open to the lame, the halt, and the blind, the way it had been after the San Francisco earthquake,” she later wrote. “Only then did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life....”
In 1917, an ammunition ship bound for the war in Europe exploded in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the largest man-made explosion ever experienced until the nuclear era. Windows shattered 50 miles away. Thousands were killed or injured and 325 acres of the city flattened. One soldier, just back from serving in Europe in World War I, made 23 trips to a hospital carrying the wounded, despite having a punctured lung himself. Telegraph operator Vincent Coleman, told that a huge blast was imminent, stayed behind to warn trains not to enter the city, saving hundreds of lives but sacrificing his own. He finished by tapping out “Guess this will be my last message. Goodbye boys.”
Time and again, those who serve others in times of need say that they receive more than they gave. After hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, a carpenter interrupted his 2006 cross-country motorcycle trip to help out. When Solnit caught up with him, he’d already stayed for 10 months. “[A]t first I thought I was doing it for an idealistic reason, but I get more out of it than I put into it, a lot more,” he told her. Disasters, she finds, pull people together to give them a toughness they didn’t know they had. As Viktor Frankl, who survived the Auschwitz death camp in World War II, noted, “If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.” p113
In 2005, hurricane Katrina served as a case history in how government can botch a relief effort. A headline in the Army Times newspaper read “Troops Begin Combat Operations in New Orleans.” But who, Solnit asks, were they fighting? Looters? But was looting really the biggest problem?
In a disaster, she asks, is saving property or human lives the higher priority? “[H]ow you behave depends on whether you think your neighbors or fellow citizens are a greater threat than the havoc wrought by a disaster or a greater good than the property in houses and stores around you,” Solnit writes.
Some may see a left-leaning perspective here, but in reality the book’s conclusion should please conservatives and Libertarians as well. It is the individuals and small groups on the scene who often take the best immediate action, not big government. Governments should back them up or get out of their way, rather than treat those in need only as helpless victims or, even worse, as criminals, she argues.
Disasters are agents of change – and, sometimes, a path to progress. “Horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise,” Solnit concludes. “[T]he paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister’s and brothers’ keepers.” She likens what happens in disaster to the Christian concept of waking to God’s call.
“[W]e are ordinarily sleepers, unaware of each other and of our true circumstances and selves,” she writes. “Disaster shocks us out of slumber, but only skillful effort keeps us awake.”

Gregory M. Lamb is a Monitor staff writer and editor.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.