Drawing close in times of disaster

Participants hold their hands high and pray during a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.


Tess Vigeland: The spirit of volunteerism may have waned along with the economy. But a new book argues that a renewed sense of community is the one bright spot that tends to emerge out of calamity.

This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And that disaster is one of the five explored in Rebecca Solnit's book: "A Paradise Built in Hell."

We all, of course, remember the death and destruction that befell cities all along the Gulf Coast. Perhaps most tragically, the submersion of New Orleans. But Solnit remembers something else. Something that follows a pattern of previous disasters going as far back as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Rebecca, welcome to the program.


Vigeland: So here we are approaching the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. You did quite a bit of reporting out of New Orleans shortly after the storm. Can you describe what you saw?

SOLNIT: You know, I saw a lot of remarkable stuff that didn't make it into the mainstream news. I saw heroic efforts to rebuild on the part of the people there themselves, but also hundreds of thousands of volunteers. It was as though the freedom summer of the Civil Rights movement had been expanded a thousand fold. People rise to the occasion and often do so with joy. Because in a certain sense it's everyday life that is a disaster for most of us, a disaster of isolation and alienation and purposelessness that people often overcome in taking care of each other and responding in the urgent tasks at hand. So that's the broad response. You have a minority of people, often people in power, who assume the rest of us are monsters. And they tend to panic because they think that the monsters have been unleashed. And you certainly saw that with the media and some other government officials in Katrina.

Vigeland: And what do you mean by that?

SOLNIT: FEMA and other people decided that since the New Orleaneans were so dangerous, they were more focused on safety and in treating these people as criminals than on rescuing them. FEMA and other federal authorities were even preventing others from rescuing and water and supplies from coming in. And so as part of the madness of Katrina is that, everybody was obsessed with these crimes that weren't happening, the supposed mass rapes and murders in the Superdome and Convention Center and didn't see these other crimes that were in fact happening. And that still aren't really recognized enough.

Vigeland: In the book you talk about what these kinds of disasters do to upend class structure. You know, all of the sudden everybody in the community is without a home, without access to bank accounts. Can you talk a little bit about that?

SOLNIT: It doesn't unfold the same way in every disaster. But often there is this kind of meltdown of all the structures that divide and sort us out. And people are literally or figuratively in the same boat. Doctors and patients are now at the same level waiting to be evacuated from a hospital or trying to get out of a hospital. Tourists in New Orleans were stranded with locals. All kinds of people were brought together. And that often comes as a kind of liberation from the ways people are ordinarily divided.

Vigeland: You know we've just been through a different kind of disaster over the last year or so -- a financial one. I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who was untouched by it. I wonder what you think about our reaction to the economic crisis, compared to the way that the people of New Orleans reacted to Katrina.

SOLNIT: I think that in the kind of disasters I write about, the sudden disasters of an earthquake, an explosion, hurricane. You know you wake up and everything is different. It's wide open who you are, and what you are going to do about it. And an economic disaster is different for the most part in that it is so selective. Some of us are now unemployed, some of us are now evicted from our foreclosed-upon homes. Some of us aren't. And so it doesn't creative quite the same broad inclusive community within a region. But I do see people improvising responses that have the same kind of resourcefulness and solidarity. And I do see the same willingness to question the status quo, to rethink what is capitalism, what is this economy, what are these gigantic bonuses, what is this corrosive mortgage system, what else could it be, that has the same kind of opening you often see in these more immediate disasters.

Vigeland: Rebecca Solnit's new book is called "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster." Thank you so much.

SOLNIT: You're welcome.


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