In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, author Rebecca Solnit analyzes five major catastrophes to discover the potential for “spontaneous, anarchic recovery” from catastrophic events. Starting with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Solnit illuminates a pattern of “elite panic” characterized by “fear of social disorder; fear of poor, minorities and immigrants; obsession with looting and property crime; willingness to resort to deadly force; and actions taken on the basis of rumor.” The media, she says, perpetuates elite panic by spinning the aftermath to look like mayhem, as if the survivors are “dangerous, not endangered” and warranting a paramilitary rather than humanitarian response. Elite panic is a compounding force to the tragedy almost without exception--from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake and more recently Katrina and 9/11.
Paradoxically, Solnit points out that the very disasters that disrupt social structure can also “give rise to small, temporary utopias in which the best of human nature emerges. . .” The basis of these extraordinary communities is the dissolution of societal expectations, the overturning of everyday life that Solnit says is “already a disaster of sorts, from which actual disaster liberates us.”
You can listen to Rebecca Solnit discuss her book on Democracy Now.