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Funtastic Disaster

February 21, 2011

In September of 2003, Hurricane Isabel hit the East Coast.  I’m sure almost nobody remembers it, but I’m from DC, where hurricanes are as rare as nice weather is here, so it was basically the highlight of my year.  We didn’t get hit too hard but a small tree fell down in my best friend’s yard, directly across the street.  Immediately, I went over.  We started playing among the branches, and my friend’s father asked if we could start breaking some of the smaller branches off.  In a bit, my father came over with a saw to cut the trunk into sections.  Our fathers told us we could go inside, but we didn’t want to, we were having too much fun.  Then, from seemingly everywhere, dozens of other kids poured out of houses and alleys to play on the fallen tree, and strip it of branches.  We weren’t even being crazy kids, hopped up on Kool-aid and cookies, we actually stripped the whole tree bare, filling tons of trash bags with twigs and branches and leaves and then lugging the bags to the curb.  We left as night approached because the streetlights had lost power too.


The next day however, I went outside to finish clearing the tree, expecting to have to drag my best friend out to help me, but he was already there, working and laughing with three other neighborhood kids.

Reading Solnit’s piece on disasters reminded me of those two days, in particular how she relates disasters to carnivals.  Hurricane Isabel was a disaster, shutting down the Federal Government for a few days, causing roughly fifty deaths across the Mid-Atlantic States, along with several billion dollars worth of damage, yet it wasn’t a sad time for me.  I had never been in immediate danger, nor had anyone I knew.  We lost power for a day, but many in the block surrounding lost it for much longer, and as dinnertime approached on the second day of stripping the tree, adults along the street started coming out of their houses, carrying food and tables.  Tables were set up in the street; someone brought out a boom box and another a grill.  The Basic Block PartyPeople came from blocks away, many without power at all, to eat and laugh and marvel at the naked tree still lying in the street, and we had a block party the likes of which I’ve never seen since.


Solnit, I believe, is correct.  Disaster is an inconvenience and disruption to normal life, but this isn’t bad.  For two days, school was cancelled and I played and knew neighbors I would never have met otherwise.  Maybe it was the sense of relief that we had survived unscathed, that we had braved this supernatural, natural disaster, and we were letting off steam celebrating.  The specter of death and destruction had passed, and we could, for the first time in a long time, appreciate how beautiful life was.  We started to appreciate the littler things in life, like a friendly hello, giving and receiving a helping hand, and friendship, because in the face of uncontrollable, dangerous fate, we realize they are what matters to us most.

On the third day however, school was back, the streets were cleared, the random neighborhood kids were gone, and I had dinner inside with just my family.  The disconcerting part of human nature is not, as Hobbes argues, the possibility we are self-serving, because this obsession with self is constantly grappling with our empathy.  The disconcerting part of human nature is that after we have “saved” all those needing to be saved, our empathy wanes; that we will work together to achieve a common good and then we will isolate ourselves.

hurricane isabel.jpg

  1. Noah Gordon permalink
    February 21, 2011 7:58 PM

    As someone who also grew up in Washington DC i found this post particularly interesting. I remember Hurricane Isabel as one of DC’s few interesting natural events (others including the cicada invasion we get every seventeen years, last years 5 foot blizzard, and the minor earthquake we have once in a blue moon. The post is heartwarming and is a good example of what Solnit means about people coming together after disasters.

    Where I took issue with the author was in the last sentence: “The disconcerting part of human nature is that after we have “saved” all those needing to be saved, our empathy wanes; that we will work together to achieve a common good and then we will isolate ourselves.”

    If only we could continue to operate in “caring post-disaster mode”, or whatever you want to call it, indefinitely. But that wouldn’t make sense. If everyone had the same level of care and empathy for others at all times, there would be no money or resources left for the next disaster. After a tragedy stories always pop up in the media lamenting how quickly the support stopped coming–especially with the recent situation in Haiti. But we can’t continue to support Haiti forever, just as we can’t indefinitely help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, or the 1871 Chicago Fire. Sh*t happens. It’s cynical but true. There’s only so much empathy to go around.

    • timothyhall permalink
      February 22, 2011 6:55 PM

      I totally see where Monsieur Gordon is coming from, as it is definitely necessary to have some awareness that the future becomes the present very quickly, and, in turn, to plan according to the possible disasters it could bring. However, upon first reading it in the original text, I took this citation to have a different sentiment, one that was more “spiritual” than monetary–empathy in the sense of one’s treatment of another more so than financial allocation. “we will work together to achieve a common good and then we will isolate ourselves.” — This doesn’t speak to the idea of complaining for philanthropy or governmental support that happens during “caring post-disaster mode” as implied by sir Gordon, but the communal happiness that emerges post-disaster and subsequently dissipates when daily life is restored.

  2. Shelby Cashman permalink
    February 22, 2011 10:18 PM

    I found this post especially intriguing because it got me thinking about how this idea “that we will work together to achieve a common good and then we will isolate ourselves,” can apply to other situations aside from moments of disaster. Now, the first thing I thought of when I finished reading this was the cult classic movie, The Breakfast Club….I know it sounds strange, but just bear with me. In this movie, 5 of the most diverse high school students are thrown together in Saturday morning detention. Naturally, their statuses as members of different high school “cliques” causes some tension between them, and they resort to ridiculing one another. What they soon realize, however, is that they all have the exact same enemy: the authoritative Principle keeping them in detention. So, they soon learn that working together to distract the Principle so that they can make the most of their time in detention is a much more productive solution. The author of this post clearly understands the idea that people, such as the characters in The Breakfast Club or members of the neighborhood, come together when they have a common goal in mind (whether it be fooling the Principle so they can smoke marijuana and dance around the library OR coming together to help those affected by a disaster). But, the most interesting point is, what happens after the goal is achieved? The author suggests that people return to isolation, and the ending of The Breakfast Club brings up a similar point. There is the lingering question of whether these members of different cliques will even acknowledge each other Monday morning when they are thrust back into the high school reality, despite their Saturday morning bonding experience. My answer to the author and the ending of the movie is that, if people would simply make an effort to keep up to relations and camaraderie felt in times of unification, so much good could come out of it. Go find those new friends you made on your street while stripping the tree and continue playing with them post-hurricane or say hi to that “weird” kid you met in detention…who knows, maybe you’re life will be changed forever.

    I suggest renting this if you have never seen it!

  3. moshinsky permalink
    February 23, 2011 12:10 AM

    Shelby and Timothy hit what I meant more; the idea that only extreme circumstances shake us up enough to be empathetic and connect with people in a way that we always enjoy, whether we are in a disaster or in normal life. Noah brings up a good point however, that at some level, the post disaster state of carnival is intrinsically ephemeral. If the whole world had one huge block party, everyone would be happy, but nothing would get done, and eventually the world would run out of supplies. It is similar to the economic model for future versus present consumption. If all resources (time an labor in this case, as all the workforce would be at the block party) were put to present consumption, the amount of future consumption would drop to zero. While it is necessary for life to back to “normal” at some level, I still find it a shame that it seems to be an all or nothing situation. Either all block party, all carnival, or all work.

  4. cfrankel permalink
    February 23, 2011 12:15 PM

    You make a great connection to what Solnit is explaining in her article, “The Uses Of Disaster.” The links you make between the people in your neighborhood banning together to clean the tree and even doing it without being asked to. However, you do mention that this was not a sad time for you. I believe that this contradicts what Solnit is saying. Because of the disasters, people willingly help each other out. This does not necessarily mean that this wasn’t a sad time for the victims. It was a sad time, but with the help of others, they were able to get through it. Awesome connection though!

  5. John D'Adamo permalink
    February 23, 2011 12:52 PM

    I agree with the points mentioned above. Rebecca Solnit’s piece did a great job in emphasizing the positives in humanity after a disaster strikes, and in the aftermath of Isabel one saw, yet again, people helping people get cleared out following the storm. Noah and moshinsky definitely have a valid argument also in the “huge block party” aspect- if the world continued in a la-de-dah mindset, less might get done and market supply chains would shift way in, causing massive shortages in all kinds of vital goods.

  6. Jeff DeClaire permalink
    February 23, 2011 2:30 PM

    To start, I really enjoyed this post and the use of an actual example to expand upon Solnit’s points about people after disasters. I think Solnit’s article brought a very good point about the “togetherness” that comes out of bad or unfortunate unfortunate. I, as I’m sure many other people do, often overlook the fact that people show more empathy and respect to other after they have endured difficult circumstances. It is almost expected for people to be nicer and more giving to each other when something terrible happens, which is exactly how it should be.

    It is a shame, however, that it takes something as massive as a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake, to bring people together in this way. While I agree to a certain extent with many of the previous comments about too much “giving” being a bad thing, I think that we need to carry more of this in our everyday lives. As moshinsky pointed out, it seems to be always be an all or nothing situation. When everything is “normal,” we really never think of people in need on a regular basis. We mainly only think about ourselves, and what we can do to beat the people around us in almost every situation. But when something major happens, such as the Haiti earthquake, everyones eyes are opened and people do whatever they can to help, making things much easier for people involved in the disaster. Ultimately, I think that we need to do a better job of showing the giving and caring about other people on a regular basis. We do not need to go to the extremes that are necessary after disasters, but we need to rid some of the selfishness and competition that is with us on an everyday basis.

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