Who We Are, Or Could Be, in Times of Crisis | Facing History & Ourselves

Who We Are, Or Could Be, in Times of Crisis

Historian and activist Rebecca Solnit writes about people’s responses to disasters and the human capacity to do good.  
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

During natural disasters—like hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes—people have to make choices quickly. Historian and activist Rebecca Solnit writes about what such moments of crisis reveal about human behavior. She begins with Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005. At least 1,245 people died in the disaster, and property damage was estimated at $105 billion. As is often the case in natural disasters, poor people were the most vulnerable to the death and destruction caused by the storm. Many Americans thought that government and local residents should have done a better job of protecting all citizens.

In the wake of the hurricane, fear, stereotypes, and rumors undermined some rescue efforts. But Solnit emphasizes that other responses to the disaster revealed the amazing capacities of humans to do good. She writes,

Who are you? Who are we? In times of crisis, these are life and death questions. Thousands of people survived Hurricane Katrina because grandsons or aunts or neighbours or complete strangers reached out to those in need all through the Gulf Coast, and because an armada of boat owners from the surrounding communities and as far away as Texas went into New Orleans to pull stranded people to safety . . .

Katrina was an extreme version of what goes on in many disasters, where how you behave depends on whether you think your neighbours or fellow citizens are a greater threat than the havoc wrought by a disaster or a greater good than the property in houses and stores around you. (‘Citizen’, here, means members of a city or community, not people in possession of legal citizenship in a nation.) What you believe shapes how you act. How you act results in life or death, for yourself or others, like everyday life, only more so. Katrina was, like most disasters . . . full of altruism: from young men who took it upon themselves to supply water, food, diapers, and protection to the strangers stranded with them, to people who sheltered neighbours, to the uncounted hundreds or thousands who set out in boats—armed, often, but also armed with compassion—to find those who were stranded in the stagnant waters and bring them to safety, to the two hundred thousand or more who volunteered to house complete strangers, mostly in their own homes, via the Internet site hurricanehousing.org in the weeks after, more persuaded by the pictures of suffering than the rumours of monstrosity, to the uncounted tens of thousands of volunteers who came to the Gulf Coast to rebuild and restore.

In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behaviour in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and storms across the North American continent and around the world have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behaviour in the wake of a calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism. From 1906 San Francisco [the site of a devastating earthquake] to 2005 New Orleans, innocents have been killed by people who believed that their victims were the criminals and they themselves were the protectors of the shaken order. Belief matters . . .

. . . When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up—not all, but the great preponderance—to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness brings joy even amidst death, chaos, fear and loss. Were we to know and believe this, our sense of what is possible at any time might change. We speak of self-fulfilling prophesies, but any belief that is acted on makes the world in its image. Beliefs matter. And so do the facts behind them. When it comes to human behaviour in disaster, the gap between common beliefs and actualities limits the possibilities. Changing beliefs could fundamentally change much more. Horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, the realm in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire and are each our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. 1

Connection Questions

  1. What has Rebecca Solnit observed about the ways in which humans respond when there is a natural disaster? How might a natural disaster reshape a person’s universe of obligation (see reading, Universe of Obligation in Chapter 2)? Have you ever seen similar responses to events in your own community?
  2. What can natural disasters reveal about the human potential for good or about people’s capacity to help one another? Why might natural disasters reveal different aspects of human behavior than those that often follow other kinds of crises, like outbreaks of mass violence or genocide? 
  3. Why does Solnit say that "beliefs matter" in how humans respond to others who need help? 
  4. In this reading, Solnit describes how, in moments of disaster, people often step up to take care of each other and to be each other’s keepers. She has also written, “The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human.” What do you think she means by this statement? What is the “great contemporary task of being human”? What would it look like to achieve it?
  • 1Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 1–3. Reproduced by permission from Viking Books.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Who We Are, Or Could Be, in Times of Crisis," last updated August 2, 2016.

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