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What to Pack for Disaster—And What to Leave Behind

Rebecca Solnit: When disaster strikes, don’t forget your compassion and critical thinking—but leave your panic, cliches, and stereotypes at the door.
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Helping in Japan, photo by Kordian

A woman who was trapped in her home is carried by a Japan Self Defense Force soldier in Kesennuma City in Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan March 12, 2011.

Photo by Kordian.

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 10 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.

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.

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.

Despite what you think you know, ordinary people generally don’t panic in emergencies. So throw that assumption out.

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.

After both Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the word “looting” was used to justify shooting people down in the streets—the death penalty, that is, without benefit of trial—for what in ordinary times might otherwise be called “petty theft.” In extraordinary times, when the electricity goes, and there are no functioning bank machines, credit cards, or banks, and in many places no shopkeepers, you may need to acquire the goods that sustain life by taking them, often from wrecked or abandoned stores. The alternative is hunger, thirst, cold, and misery. To me, that’s not even theft.  What we saw a lot of in Japan was people lining up to buy things in not-so-wrecked places where shopkeepers were actually still doing business.   

Microphones, photo by Rusty SheriffWords Matter: How Media Can Build Civility or Destroy It

Lots of reverse-stereotype articles have appeared about how Japanese don’t loot. In fact, there are accounts of Japanese citizens taking things without benefit of purchase, but since they’re not black, no one gets all that excited about it. Also there have been accounts of people getting really angry while waiting in line. I also saw a photograph of a guy siphoning gas from a minivan tipped up in some wreckage. Was it his? Who cares?

In crises, for some authorities, the media, and many outside observers, civilization tends to consist mainly of property relations, and so they pay more attention to whether someone’s taking crackers than whether a grandmother is dying in the wreckage (while law enforcement goes after the cracker-taker). Throw that out. It’s sludge in your mind. It causes needless deaths—both of those who get shot as “looters” and those in dire need who get neglected while property is protected. So far, this hasn’t happened (as far as I can tell) in Japan, but it did happen in Port-au-Prince, New Orleans, and earthquake-wrecked San Francisco in 1906, and it might well happen when big earthquakes hit the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Seattle—as they one day will.

The idea that all Japanese are selflessly dutiful might be undermined by the story of the hospital near the Fukushima reactors where 128 elderly people were simply abandoned. “Most of them were comatose and 14 died shortly afterwards,” the Guardian reported. Of course, six miles from that hospital were the “Fukushima 50”—the nuclear workers risking their lives to try to keep conditions at the plant from getting worse. What they are undergoing and what it will do to them we don’t know yet. There is so much we don’t know yet.

Other racial stereotypes suggested that Japanese are quiet and obedient and that this is a good thing—though one must now hope that they will be neither, and demand a major transformation of the private corporations and public institutions that allowed their nuclear nightmare to unfold as it did. Which is to say that—like human beings everywhere—the Japanese vary, and no blanket statements fully cover them. For your future emergency, pack a real blanket or sleeping bag, but don’t pack the usual set of clichés.  

The Human Nature Business

In a disaster, you will want to bring your identity, so we are often instructed, meaning some government-issued form of identification. But you will also want to bring a deeper identity, a sense of who you are and who we are. This matters greatly, because disaster tests our nature, even as it requires us to cooperate with those who are in it with us. 

“Disaster myths are not politically neutral, but rather work systematically to the advantage of elites."
  -Rutgers professor Lee Clark

The usual emphasis on “panic” in disasters implies that, in a crisis, we’re all sheep wheeling around idiotically, incapable of making good decisions, and selfishly trampling those around us. The emphasis on looting implies that, in a crisis, we’re all wolves, taking ruthless advantage of and preying on each other. Both presume that during a disaster social bonds will break. In fact, as the records of disaster after disaster show, mostly they don’t. In fact, those who study the subject (and reams of testimony by those who have lived through it) confirm that, in catastrophe, most of us behave remarkably beautifully, exhibiting presence of mind, altruism, generosity, bravery, and creativity.

Most of us.

Who, then, does it serve to imagine that we are wolves and sheep, fools and savages? Lee Clarke, a disaster sociologist and professor at Rutgers, wrote after Hurricane Katrina, “Disaster myths are not politically neutral, but rather work systematically to the advantage of elites. Elites cling to the panic myth because to acknowledge the truth of the situation would lead to very different policy prescriptions than the ones currently in vogue.”  That is to say, if we are wolves and sheep, and so not to be trusted, then they are the shepherds and the wolf-killers.

They want the right to police us, to boss us around, and to lie to us in a disaster (and the rest of the time, too, actually). They lie to us on the grounds that we will panic if we know the truth—and so they withheld critical information when Three Mile Island nearly melted down in 1979, when Chernobyl did melt down in 1985, when the pit where the World Trade Towers had been spewed toxic smoke for months in 2001, when a mass murderer was loose on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, when the reactors in Fukushima started venting radiation into the surrounding environment. The media often repeats these lies and regularly fails to question authority even though the track record of lying in disasters is clear.

Officials in the United States lied in this disaster, too. The amounts of radiation that have reached these shores apparently are, as they have claimed, so minor as to be insignificant in a world already full of toxins and carcinogens, but they also suggested that much higher levels would be safe. Which is a lie. As is the idea that nuclear power is safe.

Authoritarian Technology

In some respects the authorities here and in Japan have been completely crazy, not just in the aftermath of this disaster but every day since the dawn of the “peaceful atom” era of the nuclear age. Nuclear power is essentially an elaborate and unlikely way to boil water to turn turbines to create electricity. Its makers must mine, refine, and consolidate huge amounts of one of the deadliest materials on earth, uranium-235 (the less than one percent of naturally occurring uranium with 235 electrons; the leftover 99 percent, the less radioactive but nevertheless deadly U-238, becomes nuclear waste in the process). U-235 and the plutonium created from it are dangerous at every stage of the process. In addition, constructing a power plant requires a huge amount of carbon-spewing conventional energy, so there’s never been a lot of logic to building them to bridge our move to renewable energy.

The delusional premise behind nuclear energy is that we can create this material and then contain it for the duration of its dangerous phase. For plutonium, that’s 24,000 years, or about 15 times as long as something called civilization has existed. For uranium-235, that’s 700 million years, a time so vast it’s basically forever.

Fifty years into the nuclear age, we’ve had four major reactor accidents, along with a host of minor ones and leaks and ventings, and we still don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste that plants like the ones at Fukushima produce even when no accidents occur. This is the “spent fuel” that the U-235 quickly becomes. It’s still intensely radioactive and toxic; it’s only “spent” in the sense that it’s no longer useful for boiling water in reactors. It’s still useful for bombs, dirty or otherwise.

There are better ways to boil water.

The Guardian reports: “The power plant at the center of the biggest civilian nuclear crisis in Japan's history contained far more spent fuel rods than it was designed to store, while its technicians repeatedly failed to carry out mandatory safety checks, according to documents from the reactor's operator.”

This news suggests incompetence and untrustworthiness, but most U.S. nuclear power plants also have an overabundance of spent fuel rods in cooling ponds onsite. That’s because the only plans for long-term storage of some of the more than 70,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste American nuclear reactors have produced, now heating those ponds, were also crazy. If there’s one good, long-term reason to love Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama, it’s that they put a stop to a plan to dump some of the stuff in seismically, hydrologically, and volcanically active Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a couple of years ago. Of course if the Republicans have their way, the dump will lurch back from the dead.

Further Preparations

So in a disaster, unload the usual clichés and stereotypes. Do your best not to fill up the unknown with fantasy or fear. Don’t assume the worst or the best, but keep an alert mind on the actual as it unfolds. Don’t take scenarios for realities. Be prepared to reevaluate and change your plans again and again.

Which is to say that disaster is like everyday life, only more so.

Don’t bring a lot of fear of the neighbors: If you’re not rescuing them, they might be rescuing you, and afterward you may very well be building a community kitchen together in the ruins. In San Francisco, we have a website called 72hours.org, which acknowledges that you’re likely to be on your own in a major disaster. There just aren’t enough rescue personnel, firefighters, and so forth to respond on the scale such a disaster requires. So help yourself and the people around you.

In preparation, investigate local dangers, whether a refinery, a freight rail line on which toxics roll by, that big earthquake slated to hit New York, a floodplain, or a forest fire, and figure out what to do if the worst happens, since Japan reminds us that sometimes it does. And maybe you can even train your authorities not to panic in disaster and not to treat the rest of us like so many sheep and wolves. Try to ensure that they won’t regard a major disaster as a major occasion for law enforcement rather than a time when civil society should pull together. Make sure they won’t demonize or victimize the most needy in a crisis, as nonwhite people, undocumented immigrants, the poor, and the left-behind have been many times before.

Don’t bring a lot of fear of the neighbors: If you’re not rescuing them, they might be rescuing you, and afterward you may very well be building a community kitchen together in the ruins.

Get a battery-powered, or better yet, hand-cranked radio and decide which media outlets you trust. Then sift through the news with care, because ordinarily useful news sources, too, fall prey to fear-amplifying rumor and government cover-ups and lies in a crisis. The left-wing media is no exception: I heard a fair amount of nutty nuclear stuff last week.

55TOC New OrleansIn New Orleans,
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Learn some science about radiation, especially if you live near a nuclear power plant. And keep in mind that it’s better to evacuate unnecessarily than undergo contamination unnecessarily. Don’t forget to take Great-Aunt Helen. The triple disaster in Japan has offered countless reminders of just how vulnerable the elderly can be in an emergency.

If you want to do more, look into hazard reduction. This can mean learning how to turn off the gas lines in your home, or preventing a new nuclear power plant from being built in your neighborhood or on your planet. It can mean acknowledging that climate change is bringing us a superabundance of disasters—droughts, floods, heat waves, fires, rising seas, and more—and that we need to be better prepared than ever for calamity, even as we work to minimize the causes of climate change and its impacts.

Disasters often lead to permanent change. In that sense they’re never over.

And keep in mind that disasters start suddenly and end slowly. Some predict it will be five years before Japan recovers from the Sendai quake followed by tsunami followed by nuclear crisis.  Remember as well that disasters often lead to permanent change. In that sense they’re never over.

The United States was permanently changed by 9/11 and Katrina; Ukraine by Chernobyl—or maybe it would be more accurate to say the whole world by Chernobyl. In 2006, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself said, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month … was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”

In the wake of its present disaster, Japan may already be changing, and that may not be a bad thing. In its wake, the future of nuclear power may change, and that might be a very good thing. One thing we know now: We don’t know yet.


Rebecca SolnitWriter Rebecca Solnit lives in San Francisco, a city that has never had a major flood, heat wave, blizzard, or terrorist attack, though the panicky U.S. Army did burn down about half the city in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. From 1988 to 2002 she was an antinuclear activist, and her book Savage Dreams is in part about that movement, while her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster deals with major urban calamities.

This article was first published on TomDispatch.com.

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