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Who Ya Gonna Call in an Environmental Disaster?

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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.

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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 of 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."

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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.

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.

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)

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After Katrina, when the the Feds finally did show ... by Ian MacLeod on Monday, Oct 26, 2009 at 1:59:11 PM