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Book Review: Hell’s Well

Think of a disaster movie. Any disaster movie. Whatever the central threat, from Godzilla to malevolent extraterrestrials to climate catastrophe, there will be at least one scene full of people behaving at their worst: looting expensive luxuries from abandoned stores, smashing windows, screaming in panic, shooting at their neighbors. According to Hollywood, society is just one bad event away from near-total collapse, unleashing the Hobbesian wolves of our worst impulses and setting everyone against everyone else. Art reflects the broader culture, and what our culture believes is that humans are inherently selfish.

Now think of the last major disaster you experienced. Any disaster. Whatever the central threat, from hurricane to ice storm to wildfire, I bet there were numerous scenes full of people behaving at their best: scrounging necessary supplies, boarding up smashed windows, organizing calmly, and checking on their neighbors. According to common experience, society is just one bad event away from a lashed-up imitation of utopia, unleashing the better angels of our nature and setting us all together in temporary unity. That experience reflects a broader reality, and what that reality shows us is that humans are inherently cooperative.

Those dueling scripts are at the heart of Rebecca Solnit’s deeply researched but readable study of disaster responses, A Paradise Built in Hell. Making deep investigative dives into a series of major North American disasters, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Solnit takes a hard look at what actually happens in disasters, and how our misinformed stereotypes and biases shape real events.

A central theme of these stories is that there is indeed panic and chaos in disasters, but not of the type shown in movies. In San Francisco after the 1906 quake, for example, people shaken and burned out of their homes immediately formed impromptu camps, soup kitchens, and first aid teams to help each other. There was no chaos in the streets. However, a military detachment based just outside the city, headed by a gung-ho officer convinced that society was on the brink of collapse, commenced an armed occupation of the town and began shooting imagined evildoers, hindering firefighting efforts, and evicting citizens from the buildings that were still standing. The same insanity gripped New Orleans nearly a century later, where militarized police, National Guard troops, and local vigilantes waged war against peaceful citizens who were just trying to help each other, find shelter and food, and escape the devastated city.

This pattern, which disaster sociologists call “elite panic,” recurs with horrifying regularity. A common feature of these elite panic responses is that they end up compounding the disaster. Had the troops just stayed in their barracks after the 1906 San Francisco quake, the people of the city would’ve fared far better. Had the rifle-toting police focused on helping Katrina survivors in New Orleans instead of treating them like enemies, hundreds more lives would’ve been saved. Beliefs matter, as Solnit reminds us repeatedly, and beliefs based on paranoid fantasies can and do kill.

What can we do with this insight? First and most obviously, we need to acknowledge that the Hollywood script is wrong, and that grassroots citizen responses are a common and useful feature of disasters. Instead of panicking and trying to impose artificial order through violence and threats, disaster management leaders need to embrace these improvised responses and work with them. Solnit cites an immense body of evidence showing that this cooperative approach will work far better than rigid, militaristic tactics that treat disaster zones as battlefields.

The book also makes a second argument, that these “disaster utopias” are revealing something important and fundamental about human nature; we crave community and revert to it instinctively when other social structures fail. If we could harness that instinct, Solnit argues, we could build a fairer, more just society than the one we currently inhabit: one that feeds our innate sense of community instead of repressing it.

That’s a wonderful idea, but it’s worth noting that the book was published in 2009, right after a major election that gave America its first Black President. Obama’s campaign, built on a message of hope and aided in part by the previous administration’s deeply incompetent responses to Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial collapse, may have been a high water mark for American optimism. Today, as we stare down a continuing global pandemic and await the departure of a corrupt racist President with autocratic aspirations, the inherent goodness of our fellow citizens is a bit harder to perceive. It seems likely, though, that we’ll have many more opportunities to see how we respond in disasters. Maybe we’ll get it right eventually.