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Charlie looks at what lessons we can learn about responding to disasters, from Rebecca Solnit’s book: ‘A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster’

I have a strong interest in hurricanes having worked with a number of organisations in the Caribbean. This week I am on holiday (not in the Caribbean), and I have been reading ‘A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster’ by Rebecca Solnit. Last time I went away I read ‘Adaptive Business Continuity’, so even on holiday I can’t let business continuity go! The reason I was reading the book by Rebecca Solnit is because I am fascinated by how people behave after disasters. Do they panic and is it a case of survival of the fittest, as portrayed in disaster movies, or do people on the whole, help each other after a disaster? Hurricane Dorian gave me an ideal reason to share some ideas covered in this book.

The first point made is that during disasters, people generally do not revert to the savage idea that it is down to survival of the fittest and only the strongest will survive. The panic you see in films, where there is a mass scrum and people trample others to death to get out of the burning building, are a popular myth which should remain in films. We know from Hillsborough and in Mecca on pilgrimage that people do get killed in crushes, but this is usually down to poor crowd management rather than trying to escape another disaster. Rebecca’s book says that people fleeing for their lives help each other get out and do not trample over others. During the Twin Towers’ disaster, the evacuation was orderly and those who were fitter helped those who were less fit and anyone who was disabled. We have all seen the film Titanic or at least know the story involving getting women and children off first, this was not some etiquette from a bygone age but the reality of how people behave in disasters.

One fear of people caught up in disasters is looting, and they worry that society will break down and that it will become a free-for-all. The first thing people do is break into TV retailers, fancy trainer stores and jewellers in order to steal the contents. Having read some newspaper coverage of the response to Hurricane Katrina, I believed this to be true or at least a symptom of that particular hurricane, so I was especially interested to read the chapter on Katrina in this book. Rebecca Solnit debunks this idea of people looting immediately after the hurricane. Breaking into shops did occur but this was for food, water and clothing as these where necessary for survival. A 50-inch TV is not really that helpful when you are hungry and thirsty. What happened post-Katrina was a fear that there would be looting, and the pictures of people breaking into stores seemed to add to this narrative. This led to vigilante groups forming to defend their neighbourhoods from looters and well-armed police and National Guardsmen patrolling the streets. In the book are a number of cases of random shootings of black men who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One argument in the book is that during disasters the elites fear losing what they have and that looters will take their goods. They use their influence with the authorities to get law enforcement or the military to protect their homes and businesses. There was a case in the Mexican earthquake of 1985 where a textile sweatshop owner got police to guard his machinery in a collapsed building. The police were taken off their search and rescue duties to carry out this role. His machinery seemed to be more important than the lives of his employees trapped in a collapsed building. Looting does occur, but most of the time it is people requisitioning essential supplies, rather than looting for gain. The fear of looting mainly comes from the elite, but the fear is much stronger than the reality.

Alongside the stories of looters in Katrina, there were rumours of rape and murder by those affected by the hurricane; especially at the Superdome where a large number of the population had been evacuated to and abandoned without food and water. There were rumours that 200 bodies were found there and that marauding gang members were raping children, murdering and looting. This all turned out to be untrue and added to the rumours circulating about snipers firing from helicopters and that relief workers and responders were in danger. This meant responders believed they needed to be armed in order to defend themselves, and their attitude towards the people they were meant to be protecting and helping recover was one of hostility. Many of these rumours were carried by TV stations and appeared in newspapers, building on existing fears. Later when these rumours were debunked and were found to be false, the newspapers, TV stations and authorities didn’t correct them publicly, so the image continues to this day and it is believed that this is how people from a poor, crime-ridden area behave after a disaster, which is simply untrue. The actual story is a neighbourhood working together to look after each other, and the marauding gang members were in fact just young men going out to find food and water for those who were unable to get it themselves.

Another point in the book is that it is usually those who are worst affected who do most of the search and rescuing after a disaster. I have already seen reports of people out on jet skis and in boats rescuing people from their roofs and houses in the Bahamas. What we see on TV is the professional rescuers coming in and helping. They normally arrive 2-3 days after the disaster, when the TV crews arrive, and the majority of people have been saved by others affected. The book goes on to tell of the extraordinary generosity and community spirit of people after disasters. Shopkeepers giving away the contents of their shops to those who need it, pop-up kitchens springing up to cook and serve food for free and people sharing shelters together. People offer what little they have and communities work and pull together for a common cause. The book has some heart-warming stories of the response after 9/11, where anyone with a boat helped evacuate people off Manhattan and how strangers opened up their homes to look after those who were unable to initially get home. The story of generosity and kindness after a disaster is a common theme and people do not degrade into the worst of humanity.

Part of the desire to help comes from people wanting to do something, and if they can’t actually take part in the rescue the only other thing they can do is donate. In response to Grenfell we saw lots of examples of this, a Muslim Associate Association in Birmingham filled up their van with items they thought survivors might want and drove to Grenfell to donate them. This desire to help led to chaotic scenes of local people trying to organise a warehouse full of donated goods. The issue here is that yes donated good may be useful, but their requirement is limited, and people tend to be given more than is needed and they can cope with. The donated goods are not always items that are required, but it is difficult for these organisations to turn them away. I am sure there will be donations on a grand scale for the Bahamas, and those responding should have this in their disaster plan. You need to have a group who are responsible for managing donations and can make an early assessment of what is needed, otherwise as during Grenfell and Katrina, they will end up with a huge number of items they cannot use and have to store.

Spontaneous groups getting together and trying to organise cash often causes conflict with ‘professional’ responders. They feel that amateurs are getting in their way, don’t have the skills to manage the recovery and it undermines the professionals’ position if locals can be seen to do a better job than them. Locals think they have a much better understanding of the needs of the community and how the management of the recovery should be conducted, as opposed to the professionals who are outsiders and don’t really understand the community they are working in. They have often managed the scene of the disaster and have recovered people for 2-3 days prior to the professionals arriving. These people feel they have earned their right to either organise their own recovery with the professional responses and suppliers, or to at least have a major say on the recovery. The professional responders in the Bahamas will have to tread a thin line between using their professional knowledge whilst also listening to the groups who have spontaneously formed and managed the recovery so far.

In summary, there are three lessons from Rebecca’s book which the Bahamas’ responders should heed. 

1) Looting is feared, especially by those at the richer end of society as they feel they have lots to lose, but the fear is much greater than actual instances of it happening. Their fears should be acknowledged, but resources should not be diverted from saving lives to protecting property. Any rumours of looting, if not true, should be quickly debunked by the authorities. otherwise fears of looting will take hold. 

2) Responders should be prepared to work with local groups, listen to their needs and should not have a ‘we know best, we are the professionals’ attitude. Local groups are very likely to know the needs of the people and can ensure that the right help gets to those who need it. 

3) Lastly, the responders should be prepared for a large amount of incoming donations. They should be quick to publicise what is actually needed, and to say when donations, apart from financial ones, are no longer needed. Good disaster release can make a massive amount of difference to those suffering and affected by disasters such as Hurricane Dorian; responders and the government must learn from other responses and not listen to the previous disaster myths.

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