Book Review: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

People don’t commonly look on disasters as uplifting experiences, but in this book, the author argues that overwhelmingly traumatic shared experiences often bring out the best in the so-called victims. Within minutes or hours of disasters striking, says Solnit, magnanimity and solidarity take hold and many of those involved seek ways that they can help out others around them.

In this study of reactions to disaster, the author focuses on five of the worst catastrophes to strike North America in recent history: the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires in 1906; the Halifax explosion in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1917; the devastating earthquake that hit Mexico City in 1985; the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City in 2001; and the Hurricane Katrina devastation of New Orleans in 2005. The five sections of the book correspond to these disasters. Some of these events Solnit examines in depth, while others she describes and then uses as springboards to discuss other historical disasters.

Solnit’s point, and the reason that this book on disasters is so strangely uplifting, is that people naturally tend to form communities and help each other when disaster strikes. As examples she highlights food distribution in parks in San Francisco, those on the scene during the 9/11 attacks relinquishing their own safety to help other victims find their way out of buildings and the toxic cloud surrounding the collapsing structures, nearby boat owners risking their own lives to find stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina and carry them to safety, and other instances of people tirelessly and selflessly assisting the weak and helpless in extreme difficulties.

There’s a dark side to disasters too, and Solnit brings it out in gut-wrenching detail. It’s not the deaths caused by the disasters themselves, but rather the reaction of the upper classes that Solnit calls elite panic. Disasters usually hits the poor hardest, who can’t afford strong houses and special safety measures. The wealthy become concerned that the masses of displaced people will commence looting and rioting, and they take measures to protect their goods. These measures often involve making villains out of the victims. Instead of focusing on rescuing, evacuating, feeding, and clothing those traumatized by the event, the authorities attempt to control them and curtail their activities. In some of the disasters, notably the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, rather than rescue people lost in floods or buried in wreckage, armed police and military personnel roamed the decimated streets shooting supposed looters.

New Orleans after Katrina was an extreme example of elite panic. Many people that were trapped in the floodwaters died while authorities, instead of going in to get them, cordoned off the city and didn’t even allow rescue workers with vitally needed supplies to get in. They invented a myth that the city was dangerous. Armed vigilantes roamed the streets shooting anyone they suspected of looting, especially people of color. Thousands of deaths probably could have been prevented if the authorities at both state and federal levels had stepped in and done what they were supposed to.

This book is important, but it’s not necessarily an easy read. The difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that the local library system only had the paperback available, and it’s printed in miniscule font that made my eyes water and ache. I really wanted to persist and finish it, but I got physically and mentally weary from the effort and did something I almost never do: after finishing the first three sections, I put the book aside to quickly read a short light science fiction novel, and then I got back to it. I’m glad I did. The last two sections, about the 9/11 attack and Hurricane Katrina, are the most eye-opening of the book.

So I recommend this book, but be prepared for some heavy mental lifting. In addition, try to get hold of a copy with larger font if you can.

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