Unpacking for a Disaster
What You Need to Survive the Unexpected
By Rebecca Solnit
The first American responses to the triple calamity in Japan were deeply empathetic and then, as news of the Fukushima nuclear complex's leaking radiation spread, a lot of people began to freak out about their own safety, and pretty soon you couldn't find potassium iodide pills anywhere in San Francisco. You couldn't even -- so a friend tells me -- find them in Brooklyn.
The catastrophes were in Japan and remain that country's tragedy, so we need to keep our own anxieties in check. Or harness them to make constructive changes in preparation for our own future disasters (without losing our compassion for those killed, orphaned, widowed, displaced -- and contaminated -- in northeastern Japan). But last week saw a deluge of bad information and free-floating fear in this country.
Bogus maps of radiation clouds heading our way began circulating, along with a lot of junk science, and all kinds of overwrought fears. Crackpots and quacks in Internet postings, as well as a popular science writer in Newsweek magazine, predicted imminent earthquakes in California, with no grounds whatsoever, or with distorted scientific data. Too many of us combined a reasonable distrust of the authorities with a poor understanding of the science and the situation, starting with the fact that Japan is really, really far away from California, let alone Park Slope.
The great Sendai earthquake of March 10th should, however, teach us that the unexpected does happen, and there's no time to prepare for it -- except beforehand. And what you do beforehand matters immensely. Japan was both impressively prepared and shockingly unprepared.
The country was indeed ready for a major earthquake, even a massive not once-in-a-century but once-in-a-millennium monster. Their earthquake drills and building codes are superb and -- as far as I can tell (reporting has been anything but clear on this) -- the temblor itself did remarkably little structural damage.
The country was far less prepared for a tsunami that would breach every protective sea wall and obliterate huge swaths of coastal habitat, even though sirens and evacuation plans went into effect almost instantly. It was even less prepared for the nuclear reactor disaster that quickly overshadowed everything else.
What Not to Bring
I live in earthquake country, so I've been told most of my life that I must have an earthquake kit. Almost anyone anywhere would benefit from having an emergency kit on hand: the usual flashlight, blanket, coins for pay phones (cell phones and cell-phone service die quick in disaster), small bills, potable water, and so forth. To really deal with an emergency, though, you not only need to pack, but to unpack.
Think of your mind as your most fundamental and important emergency kit. You have a great deal of what you'll need to survive there already, but if you're not careful, a lot of junk will end up piled on top of your excellent equipment. Lift up that big television of yours, for example, and gently lob it out the window. It will fill your head with hysteria, presuppositions, misinterpretations, stereotypes, exaggerations, and racial slurs that will leave you ill-prepared for what to expect when your world is turned upside down.
Be careful with newspapers, online media, and those emails your anxious friends forward to you. Watch out for experts who aren't (or who have an unspoken agenda), for authorities who lie and withhold crucial information, for hysterics, and those who fill in the blanks of disasters past, present, and future with invented scenarios. Be clear that a lot of the worst-case scenarios are just that, not breaking news (though what happened in Japan was and continues to be pretty horrendous).
A disaster is a big foray into the unknown and into uncertainty. We hate those things. We like to know what's going to happen. Even in our own quiet everyday lives, we like to fill in the blanks. The media feeds this urge during crises with a lot of speculation and a stream of stereotypes. After all, it's their job to know, and yet a disaster means a million unexpected things are going on all at once amid severely disrupted communications networks, which often means that they don't know either, that no one does.
Throw These Words Out Right Away
So start this way. Open up that disaster kit in your mind and throw out two words that cause so much unnecessary confusion and damage in a calamity: panic and looting.
Immediately after the earthquake, I saw a video of a group of Japanese in a wildly shaking office with a British-accented voiceover calling what they were doing panic. They were indeed moving rapidly and in all directions, but they were taking shelter, stabilizing objects that were falling off shelves, and generally doing just what people should do in such situations. The New York Daily News ran a headline several inches high that just read "Panic!" Maybe they were describing themselves.
The media likes to call any rapid movement panic, even when it's the wisest possible thing to do. When the World Trade Towers were collapsing in New York, the right thing to do was run -- and most everyone did. That's not panic. That day, "panicked" people also carried a quadriplegic accountant down 69 flights of stairs, slowed down to keep pace with their co-workers, got all the kids safely out of their nearby schools, and helped the fallen to their feet. More than 60 years of disaster research makes it clear that, despite what you think you know, ordinary people generally don't panic in emergencies. So throw that out.