Published on

Who Ya Gonna Call in an Environmental Disaster?

Nine out of ten Americans now live in places of significant risk, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)   These risks include things like dam failure, hazardous material exposure, nuclear explosion, terrorism and natural disasters like wild fires, heat, hurricane, thunderstorms, tornados, tsunami, earthquakes, floods, landslides, volcanoes and winter storms.

Actually, it appears that the increased risk of disaster is occurring worldwide due to climate change, deteriorating ecosystems and the expansion of poverty, says a UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.

So what are we to do in the face of such threats to our lives, our homes, our communities-and our world?

"We need to change behavior in this country," Craig Fugate, FEMA's new director, told his emergency-management instructors at a conference last June.  The "government-centric" approach to disasters increases the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster, as Hurricane Katrina so clearly showed.

Fugate not only has extensive and relevant experience in disaster management, he is not an FOTP (friend of the powerful) as many of his predecessors were.  The former firefighter and paramedic, has served for the past 15 years as chief of emergency management in Alachua County and later for the State of Florida.  He is reputedly a tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy who has had to plan for the worst and deal with the most difficult like Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan in 2004 and Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005.

"We tend to look at the public as a liability," says Fugate. "[But] who is going to be the fastest responder when your house falls on your head? Your neighbor."

In fact, the 4,400-person agency was designed to defer to state and local officials.  However, when the locals are overwhelmed by "system collapse," as Fugate calls it, the government must rely on the public because it will take the feds too long to respond.  This is not a far-fetched idea, judging from Rebecca Solnit's new book, A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.  In a "tour" of the some of the biggest disasters over the 100 years, she notes that people at the scene consistently react in a spirit of solidarity, generosity and altruism despite the prevailing belief among the authorities that disaster turns people into panicked and ruthless savages. 

Solnit cites sociologist Charles E. Fritz, a former captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps stationed in Britain during World War II, to refute these social Darwinist beliefs.

"Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and future," said Fritz, "because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs within the context of the present realities."

For example, thousands of people escaped San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and then set up a tent city in Golden Gate Park.  On the third day after the quake, Anna Amelia Holshouser started a soup kitchen there with only a tin can and a pie plate.  She subsequently raised money to buy supplies in neighboring Oakland and was soon feeding two to three hundred people a day.  She did all this without fear, trauma or despondency and was one among many who pitched in to do whatever was possible in the wake of this devastating disruption to their lives. 

Then the authorities moved in to take control because they feared people would loot and murder.  They treated citizens with suspicion and shut down their assistance efforts, which they regarded as "renegade." 

It's important to recognize that this negative attitude toward the public is rooted in Gustave le Bon's 1894 book, The Crowd:  A Study of the Popular Mind. His thesis is that when people gather in crowds, they become primitive beings who act on instinct, which is akin to madness.  The job of the authorities is to rein them in.


The media landscape is changing fast

Our news team is changing too as we work hard to bring you the news that matters most.

Change is coming. And we've got it covered.

Please donate to our 2019 Mid-Year Campaign today.

Such thinking has typically led to unnecessary imprisonment and needless killing of people as a gesture of saving the city from "the unlicked mob" (as one military commander in the San Francisco quake referred to the public) rather than saving the people from the disaster that destroyed the city. 

While Solnit admits that some savagery does happen, people for the most part are just trying to survive.  That Black people were reported to be taking food, clothing, shoes from retail stores after Hurricane Katrina, revoltingly overlooks the fact that most of them were trying help their neighbors who had largely been abandoned by the authorities.  Of course, it also suggests the disgusting tinge of racism that still exists in our country today.

British authorities in London during the Blitz of World War II reacted in a similar overbearing and paternalistic way by worrying that citizens would act "like frightened and unsatisfied children."  The truth was that the people carried on their lives during the day and at night they bedded down on the platforms of the underground because their homes were among the tens of thousands that had been destroyed. 

"The people's role in their own defense and destiny was downplayed in order to stress an old-fashioned division of leaders and led," reflected historian Mark Connelly on the British response. 

As Solnit examines people's resort to self-sufficiency, readers learn that disasters usually signal a societal turning point where its values and the strength of its structures are challenged not only by the obvious destruction of property but by a disruption of the social order.  Yes, class war exists even in disaster where an imperceptible undercurrent resides among elites who are all about protecting their privilege and control of the society.  (We last saw this in the man-made disaster of the bank failures and subsequent bailouts and bonuses.)

Kathleen Tierney, director of the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center, refers to this phenomenon as "elite panic" where the concentration is all on preventing property crime as a justification to the use of force.  And whom do the elites fear most?  You guessed it:  the poor, minorities and immigrants. 

Sociologists contend that looting and civil disturbance are rare during disasters, however, the media can't resist it in order to "entertain our worst fears and then allay them...[when] all those rugged men and powerful leaders and advanced technologies" save the day.  These portrayals of strength and control are especially important during a time of uncertainty.  However, what the media consistently miss are the citizens' acts of bravery and kindness, which is what Solnit's book documents in a compelling way.  Given all this sociological data, it is refreshing to see that Fugate is trying to influence change in FEMA's disaster response.  For example, he's veered away from the agency's paternalistic vow to "protect the Nation from all hazards" in favor of a more collaborative promise to "support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together."

He is also attempting to overcome today's therapy culture that regards citizens as fragile and traumatized victims. 

"You're not going to hear me refer to people as victims unless we've lost ‘em," says Fugate.  "I call them survivors."

In reality, Fugate is tapping into something precious when it comes to Americans' response to disaster:  our democracy, our public life, our own sense of ourselves as actors on our circumstances and our relationships to each other. 

Disaster has the potential to bring us together as a society, says Solnit.  Given the history of Americans' initial response to disaster, we seem to know what to do if and when disaster strikes.  In the meantime, we need to build confidence and self-reliance in ourselves and educate our leaders about how we want to be treated when we are most vulnerable because given the depth of environmental damage due to climate change, most of us will most surely be affected. 

We want a more open and sharing world.

That's why our content is free. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported.

All of our original content is published under Creative Commons—allowing (and encouraging) our articles to be republished freely anywhere. In addition to the traffic and reach our content generates on our site, the multiplying impact of our work is huge and growing as our articles flourish across the Internet and are republished by other large and small online and print outlets around the world.

Several times a year we run brief campaigns to ask our readers to pitch in—and thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Our 2019 Mid-Year Campaign is underway. Can you help? We can't do it without you.

Please select a donation method:

Olga Bonfiglio

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at

Share This Article

More in: