Book Reviews

Out of the Rubble

Do we create more caring communities in the wake of natural catastrophes? Depends on what "we" you mean.

By Amy Wilentz

Tagged Natural Disasters

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster By Rebecca Solnit • Viking • 2009 • 313 pages • $27.95

Shake the Devil off: A True Story of the Murder that Rocked New Orleans
By Ethan Brown • Henry Holt • 2009 • 207 pages • $25

Rebecca Solnit’s New York in the days after September 11 and mine are two different cities. Mine is a fragmented town where people north of 57th Street walked around as though more or less nothing had happened, while people downtown tried to find ways to escape the city. Hers is a place where a rainbow of energetic and charitable people from all over the region, and from further afield, gathered to rescue, resupply, and transcend–to create what the American anarchist Hakim Bey (one of Solnit’s theoretical influences) calls “temporary autonomous zones,” places of cultural and social reinvention. That was her Union Square, a kind of soixante-huitard commune on the edge of the disaster. My city was a town where we had a sudden and unaccustomed respect for the forces of order, as opposed to our usual dismissal of the cops as unwelcome ticket-givers; hers is one where those forces of order quickly arrived to destroy the glorious atmosphere she found in the disaster’s wake.

While the tragedy’s contours were just becoming known, my friends and our kids gathered at an apartment near school. I arrived after making my way through Central Park, a long walk, beautiful on that day and, as Solnit would not be surprised to hear, already marked by a sense that the day was special and somehow sacred. Even though we north New Yorkers were not downtown breathing the dust or hiding from the debris, even though our experience of September 11 was much like that of the rest of the world’s (that is to say, virtual), still, we were in New York, we were New Yorkers, at a moment when to be a New Yorker was to be in the middle of change, in the middle of news, in the middle of the Western world’s most spectacular disaster since, since…. The atmosphere was like the ecstatic yet fearful one I’d experienced in Port-au-Prince after Duvalier was deposed. People walked around in expectation of something. The September 11 disaster provided a break in the normal, a respite that is always present in the moments after a calamity, at least for those whom the catastrophe leaves relatively unharmed.

Over at my friend’s house, we baked chocolate chip cookies with the children and tried to explain to them what had happened. We had a festive time; it was like the feasting and humor you find after funerals. “Sorry for your loss; where’s the ham?” The human creature is a strange beast.

Solnit noticed something very different about the reaction to September 11, and that something is part of a long argument presented in her new book, an argument tinged with a charming, irreverent West Coast ebullience, an attitude I think of as “joyism.” A New Yorker for years, I live in Los Angeles now, so I am not shocked or unaccustomed to this attitude. But somehow, as she presents it in the long chapter about September 11, it grates.

Solnit is part historian and part sociologist, and certainly not a reporter. She was not there for the disasters she covers, which gives the book a certain surreal distance. Naturally, she wasn’t in San Francisco for the 1906 earthquake, nor in Halifax for the armaments explosion of 1917. She wasn’t in London during the Blitz, nor in Mexico City for the 1985 earthquake, nor in New York for September 11 (she was in a gym in San Francisco, she relates). Nor was she in New Orleans for Katrina. Nor did she get to those places right after the events, because she was not yet working on this book. Paradise is a reflection from a distance, even though, in a triumph for Solnit, the narrative often has the immediacy and thrill of on-the-ground reporting, thanks to her excellent sources and vibrant voice.

Relying on the work of various “disaster scholars” (yes, disaster studies is an accepted branch of sociology), Solnit argues that disaster, while feared by established societies, actually gives hierarchical and entrenched cultures like our own the opportunity to step outside the daily grind and see the transcendent possibilities available to humankind if only law and order, private property, and a kind of suburban ennui (call it martini malaise) did not stand in our way.

Solnit’s attitude is optimistic and almost reverential; it’s the stance of an upbeat left-wing cheerleader, a convergence joyist, a kind of New Age yippie rainbow embracer. Early on in the book, she quotes Rutgers’s Lee Clarke: “Disaster myths are not politically neutral.” In this case, Clarke is talking about what he and Solnit believe are the long-held, elite myths that disaster engenders mobs, looters, and rapists. But Clarke might just as well have been talking about Solnit, who posits a people’s utopia built on the shards of catastrophe, and embodied in, say, the groups who came together in Union Square after September 11 to feed stragglers and wanderers, to put up posters, to run post-disaster rap sessions and happenings.

Here are some of the people Solnit lionizes: Jordan Schuster, student and rave organizer from the Bay area, who figured largely in the Union Square happenings (which I failed to notice while there at the time, but that’s me); Jennifer Stewart, a Statue of Liberty impersonator, who performed in the square (I also missed this); Thomas James Mueller, a writer and musician, who helped coordinate food and supplies for rescuers near the towers; Daniel Smith, a young architect who helped out with that effort; James Martin, a Jesuit priest whom Solnit describes as “joining the convergence” at Ground Zero; and Kate Joyce, a 19-year-old from New Mexico who had just arrived in New York, and who stayed for hours in Union Square, through the night “and into the week, riveted and expressive, in mourning and humbled, and in the ecstasy of a transformative present.” Clearly Joyce, like so many of Solnit’s good Samaritans, did not have a day job. As Simon Schama wrote in Citizens, his monumental history of the French Revolution, “Revolutions are the empire of the young.”

Indeed, much of Solnit’s book seems strangely childlike, as if she were describing a Rainbow Gathering rather than disasters and their aftermath. “Disaster’s message that anything could happen,” Solnit writes, “is not so far away from revolution’s exhortation that everything is possible.” That sounds good. But disasters don’t really send messages, and the exhortation of each revolution is different. Certainly the exhortation of each revolution is not that “everything is possible,” but that certain things previously considered impossible or impermissible are now deemed possible–or perhaps mandatory.

As in disaster, what happens to societies during revolution is normally a counter to the status quo; but each revolution responds to a particular status quo. The anarchist in Solnit has a habit of leaping forward through stretched analogies to conclusions that cannot bear too much serious political examination. Solnit argues, for example, that carnival, revolution, and disaster are similar: “Disaster belongs to the sociologists, but carnival to the anthropologists, who talk of its liminality. That is, like initiation rites, carnival takes place in a space betwixt and between familiar, settled states; it is a place of becoming in which differences diminish and commonalities matter.” Of course there is a connection between moments of misrule and moments of chaos. But to jump from carnival (especially in its modern, institutionalized form) to Hurricane Katrina is to leap from organized hilarity into the abyss.

Solnit’s analysis of the causes of disasters, too, is oddly innocent. It’s obvious to the point of banality to blame famines, as Solnit rightly does, not only on food scarcity but the poor social structures that distribute food, or to blame heat-wave deaths not so much on the heat as on social isolation and the unavailability of cooler places for overheated elderly people. It is likewise a statement of the obvious to point out, as Solnit does, that buildings collapse in earthquakes because they are often poorly constructed. Of the victims of disasters, Solnit writes, “and so they died and die of divisiveness and lack of empathy and altruism.”

In each of these cases, Solnit’s outrage is all that is proper and mete, but her surprise, and the overblown style of her musings, seems to place her in some faraway kingdom where such things have never been observed before. When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area in 1989 (the one disaster Solnit observed personally, though she doesn’t report much on it), she was shocked to find that her anger at a friend evaporated “along with everything else abstract and remote, and I was thrown into an intensely absorbing present… [M]any of us were enriched rather than impoverished.” Well, Solnit is not a reporter, I had to keep reminding myself as I read the book. But she is from California, a state prone to natural catastrophes where anyone can tell you, and will tell you, how much fun they’ve had after surviving a fire or a mudslide or a flood, or–especially–an earthquake.

Reporters cover disasters, and no doubt most have grown cynical and blasé about their causes, the complicated reactions to them, and the moments of creative solidarity that arise in their wake. But even in the mainstream media, and particularly in publications like The Nation–whose work Solnit relies on and whose reporting has been so important in the coverage of what happened in New Orleans during and after Katrina–you will find that reporters habitually assume that someone did something wrong (even in a natural disaster, there is a human element), that the police are screwing up and behaving crassly and violently, and that ordinary human beings are brave and death-defying in the face of difficulty. Historians, on the other hand, end up in disasters infrequently, and by accident–like normal people. What happens during a catastrophe might surprise a historian, but that doesn’t make it per se surprising.

The three tones Solnit adopts in A Paradise Built in Hell–ringingly joyful, wistfully regretful, and indignant–assume that we’ve all heretofore been blind to the causes and effects of disaster, as if we’d never read or heard about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire or Darfur, much less Katrina and Sept. 11. Each chapter shows this pattern–a terrible catastrophe, followed by the failure and/or absence of governmental structures and the forces of order, followed by the emergence of the Citizen, both individually and in a rainbow of brigades, who exhibits all the qualities we would hope for in the future leadership of our utopias: generosity, rationality, sympathy, intelligence, organizational ability, innovative imagination, and a belief in equality. In short, the pure ideals of the 1960s arising from the metaphorical and actual ashes of the rest of the evil twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

If a wonderful disaster world like the one Solnit describes is at our disposal, it’s disappointing that her prescriptions are so dreamy and diffuse. To deal with the coming era where, she maintains, both “sudden and slow disaster will become far more powerful and more common,” we need “obvious infrastructure and systemic changes and specific disaster preparedness.” That she doesn’t specify what those changes might include is fine; Solnit is not particularly concerned here with the actual and the physical. But on a loftier plane, she also suggests that we engage in “more metaphysical changes… to incorporate what disaster scholars call ‘prosocial’ behavior into disaster planning.” Here’s what she means: “The more profound preparation for disaster must make a society more like that of disaster utopias in their brief flowering: more flexible and improvisational, more egalitarian and less hierarchical, with more room for meaningful roles and contributions from all members–and with a sense of membership” (like the Bay Area during the Loma Prieta earthquake, it turns out–that’s the only governmental response Solnit approves). We all want to live in that better world. Solnit’s faith that disaster behavior constitutes the essence of human behavior is touching. Meanwhile, what is to be done with the rule of law? Shall we dispense with it utterly and see what happens? In a sense, like many an anarchist, that’s what she wants.

Those who are more jaded than Solnit, though, should still be enormously grateful for the fresh view and joyist interpretation that her optimism permits, even when it careens into truisms. In approaching disaster, she’s interested in possibility and openings for the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned for America. Aren’t we all? When society’s norms are tossed aside by wind and water, by quake and fire and terror, when the forces of order fail abysmally, when the elites and the forces of order are intent on protecting property, not saving lives, Solnit argues, humankind and the community step up and establish their own kinder, gentler, better organization. Solnit examines disaster behaviors as if peering into a window on the possibilities for revolution, and although she is sometimes dippy and wacky (her section on the monks of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Big Sur greeting and accepting the 2008 summer fire, and thereby surviving it intact, is just one example), even her wackiest points and anecdotes have lasting implications. And Solnit can also write about her subject with profound eloquence and intelligence: In a particularly convincing chapter, she shows, for example, how a better, more democratic, less corrupt, less venal Mexico began to emerge from the catastrophe of the 1985 earthquake.

Ethan Brown, in Shake The Devil Off, tells a story of Hurricane Katrina that jibes in part with Solnit’s. Improbably, it’s a love story. Brown, a freelance journalist who’s written extensively on Katrina’s aftermath, follows the brief, violent life of Zack Bowen, an Iraq War veteran who returned to New Orleans in the months leading up to Katrina. There he meets his soul mate, Addie Hall, with whom he waits out the storm in the relatively untouched French Quarter. In the aftermath of Katrina, Zack murders and dismembers Addie, then jumps off the roof of the Omni Hotel. It’s the first grisly murder in a series that plagued New Orleans as Katrina’s waters began to subside.

Zack and Addie, who hold various low-level, part-time jobs, are depressed, with little to look forward to in life other than wild New Orleanian drinking bouts and drug sprees. Besides each other, they have nothing (although Zack has two small children he has essentially abandoned). From his engagement in Iraq, and the senseless mayhem he saw there, Zack brings back to New Orleans a terrible feeling of failure and weakness. Although his friends and acquaintances consider him a good-timing party boy, Zack tells a buddy at one point, “I’m not who everybody thinks I am. I have a persona I present.”

When New Orleans is evacuated before Katrina makes landfall, Addie and Zack decide to remain: holdouts, such people were called. The couple spends a deliriously joyful few days drinking, cleaning up fallen trees and branches, having sex in the middle of the street, and hanging out with other holdouts. By the time the waters are pulling back in the rest of the city, Addie and Zack, notorious among their friends for the dark spells in their romance, are, during their city’s great cataclysm, happier and more in love than ever.

But then, things start to go back to something like normal. The cops and the 82nd Airborne have entered the town and established de facto martial law, which is particularly unsettling for the Iraq vet. (Solnit points out in her book that if the United States hadn’t been deploying so many forces to Iraq, it might have stood a better chance of helping out in New Orleans.) Just as in every disaster scenario Solnit describes, the reversion to normalcy is not a good thing for Addie and Zack. Naturally, the two hate cops and soldiers, and they despise returning New Orleanians who did not sit out the storm. Behind that resentment, Brown writes, lay perhaps “a fear that [this] symbolized a change back to what passed for ordinary in New Orleans.” As a friend of Addie’s and Zack’s notes, “They liked the lifestyle we had during the hurricane. They liked camping out. They liked not having to work. They liked not having the responsibility of paying their bills.” One can easily imagine Zack and Addie in Solnit’s book, unfurling posters in Union Square, handing out food in Mexico City, passing a “talking stick” to the traumatized citizenry in New York to give people a chance to unburden themselves. Once things in New Orleans veered back toward the banal, Zack and Addie couldn’t take it anymore; they needed their temporary autonomous zone. Something cracked, and they seem, in Brown’s gripping and honest telling of their story, inexorably drawn to their terrible fate.

The doomed couple’s attitude toward the renormalizing of New Orleans is the dark side of Solnit’s argument. Yes, we might say to her, disaster provides opportunities and openings. But in allowing for eccentricity and originality, it can also make room for the dangerous and the demented to take control, and for the lazy and un-civic-minded to adopt a kind of laissez faire negligence that slides easily into authoritarianism–that’s what often happens in disasters in the Third World (Haiti’s four hurricanes in 2008 come to mind), where the overwhelmed citizenry doesn’t have the means to organize or cope, and the government and forces of order have neither the will nor the capacity.

Solnit’s book provides a useful and cheering reminder that approaches to disaster are changing, albeit slowly, to place a greater emphasis on saving lives and to be less obsessed with preserving property. In the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a union organizer said that the reaction of government and owners had shown that “the life of men and women [in disaster] is so cheap and property is so sacred.” This is true in so many of the disasters Solnit covers, particularly the Mexican earthquake and Katrina. But at the end of Paradise, Solnit describes an emergency response program she participated in after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Asked to prioritize emergencies, her team chose to put out a fire rather than rescue injured elderly, since the fire could cause greater harm. The firefighters who led the program upbraided the team, and “amazed me by saying, ‘In disaster, property no longer matters. Only people matter.’ We had come a long way.”

Both of these books are vital additions to the disaster shelf (a packed and important one in my library). It’s critical to our response, the next time disaster rolls up to our doors, to be aware of the concept of “elite panic,” which Solnit has learned about from disaster sociologists. Don’t assume that people five blocks away will come running to rip you off, you government officials, reporters, lawyers, doctors, financiers, bankers, landlords. Don’t believe that your goods are threatened, shopkeeper. Instead, open your doors to the desperate (although it must be said that Zack and Addie “resupplied” their hurricane redoubt with groceries lightly taken from Robert’s, a neighborhood store). Naïve belief in mankind’s decency is better than a cynical certainty of evil intent. We must still try to believe that people are truly good at heart, or we risk making the same mistakes that the authorities made in New Orleans: shutting down escape routes, firing on innocents, murdering refugees. Even Zack and Addie, neither of whom managed to make much in life out of the little they’d been given, mostly tried to do right during Katrina, although elite panic would consider the two, who lived from cash payment to cash payment, at high risk for looting and pillaging. The past administration used Sept. 11 to bolster its belief that everyone is suspect. It’s a dark worldview, and both Solnit and Brown recognize that it was a factor in the catastrophe of Katrina.

“Disaster has a future,” as Solnit says at the end of her book, “where knowledge matters and so do desire and belief.” Where suspicion and rumor and myth rule, as they did in the early hours and days of Katrina, mayhem and destruction will follow. But let charity and dignity and innovation in, accompanied by the free flow of reasonably accurate information, and there is a possibility for hope and resuscitation. Cultivate that hope and trust in our fellow man, and–of course–practice random acts of kindness (“Joy matters too,” Solnit tells us). With such a regime, society may not only survive the worst kinds of disaster better, but it may one day escape from the ongoing disaster that is, Solnit believes, our everyday reality. Reading the story of Zack and Addie, however, you might conclude otherwise: that the human beast–disaster or no–is a stranger creature than Solnit imagines, and that joyism is far from the panacea she wants it to be.


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Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger. She teaches in the Literary Journalism program at the University of California at Irvine.

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