November 18, 2005

The Uses of Disaster

Category: Books/Articles,Politics — @ 5:52 am

When I was young, one of my fondest experiences were impending hurricanes. Schools would close, we would stock up the house with supplies, my best friend’s family would throw a hurricane party dinner, my family would experience a rare sense of togetherness, and the rains and winds would come howling to leave you homebound till the furious winds made their way to some other Caribbean island.

From what I remember, 2-3 were about to strike Puerto Rico when I was a kid, but never did. Until Hurricane Hugo which hit September 1989. A category five storm, it was a merciless and was the costliest in US history until Andrew in 1992 (and I wonder if Katrina has taken over that distinction). I remember the hurricane well because these events leave an unforgettable imprint on your memory for they disrupt the everyday quality of life. Nothing is normal. I was a little annoyed actually because I was about to get my drivers license and this hurricane ruined my impending independence from bumming rides off of parents and friends.

Once the hurricane hit, I could care less about anything as petty as a license. When the hurricane got close enough to the island so that it felt “real,” I freaked out a little and I left where I lived with my father close to the ocean, to my mom’s house which was more inland. Once there, I spent most of the time watching large object fly by at speeds that seemed too fast for those objects. I was awestruck.

After the storm passed, the atmosphere was dense, heavy and especially hot. Any tree cover was gone, and if there wind had been with us for days, it all but vanished with the departure of the storm. The streets were filled with new objects that clearly did not belong there. Chunks of concrete. Tree roots. Telephone poles. And especially glass. Crunchy glass was the new floor, inches deep, it was omnipresent, causing you to look up at the buidlings now left with gaping holes.

We had no electricity and water for weeks but despite the discomfort, I remember the time fondly. It brought folks together, especially neighbors, in ways that were just impossible before. Time had slowed down because we could not use anything electrical. I fell in love for the first time during that period, via a book, Love in the Time of Cholera which took up most of my sweaty nights when I would read, under the glow of a flashlight starting at 8 pm till I got sleepy and passed out.

Life eventually normalized though many of course were left more poor, more insecure after the storm, as happens with such natural events.

I tell this short story because this weekend I read a short essay by the writer and activist, Rebecca Solnit in Harpers The Uses of Disasters which sparked many of these fond memories. I like many of Harper’s essays but I took special delight in this one because she confronted beautifully the odd question as to why we can take pleasure in natural disasters, especially when they are accompanied by misery, destruction, and death.

The answer lies in part because of the disruption of the normal, the commonsense, the opportunity for “a sense of fellowship to arise” in which humans labor and connect to help each other independent of centralized authorities and the state. It is a moment of reflection, where the outcome is uncertain; where and when political change can often follow:

“The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real changes often emerge. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies, building, and property, but also the status quo. Disaster recovery is not just a resecute of the needy but also a scramble for power and legitimacy, one that the status quo usually—but not always—wins.”

She likens disasters to carnivals for it “is a peak moment” which is profound because “what you see from the peak stays with you while you traverse the plateau of everyday life.”

She theorizes that perhaps disaster take on special importance because in our society we lack these collective moments of carnival. I think however, as much as natural disasters do share a similar status to carnival and her essay argues this well, natural disasters do stand on their own as a type of event, one which is profound, for it brings into stark awareness how we can ethically respond to the world around us.

We are limited and constrained by many things in life; social norms, structures of governments, natural events, etc. There are elements of life our of our control. But there are clearly moments and times and instances that are in our control when we can shift the balance, so that we take some control to alter the path we traverse. Natural disasters unambigously provide such a moment (and while Carnival can, not so starkly). An event has befallen us that is uncontrollable. What we can control is the response to others, and in this way, natural disaster’s do and can take on a strong hue of liberation.

For those who have not read this piece, well, it is probably clear by now that I wholeheartedly recommend it.


  1. You REALLY are being more professional with these posts of yours.

    I really just like disasters cos I can run amok and no one will be the wiser.

    Comment by Adam Kramer — November 18, 2005 @ 11:11 am

  2. Aren’t I Adam? I mean come on, this is referencing an article :-)

    I can see you doing that during a disaster. But what type of disaster befalls MI? Lack of deer for hunting? :-)


    Comment by sato — November 19, 2005 @ 11:50 am

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