A Paradise Built in Hell

When the sea rises and carries us away: a blog series in response to (re)Collection by Larisa Minerva

Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) Training – Personal Readiness for a Resilient Community Led by Lt. Erica Arteseros in collaboration with the SF Fire Department.

Wednesday October 24, 7–9pm,


What we can learn from disasters: A Paradise Built in Hell


A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit, was selected for this for San Francisco’s One City One Book for 2012 for its discussion of the 1906 earthquake and fire that plays such an important role in our city’s historical identity. But the book goes much deeper than that covering as vast experiences as September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, the Mexico City earthquake in September 1985 and many disasters, revolutions and festivals in between and case after case of both citizen and authority reactions.


In her conversation with the SF fire department chief Joanne Hayes-White at the San Francisco Public Library last Wednesday, Solnit elaborated on the conclusions found in her book and they challenge everything you ever thought about disasters.


“Everyday is a disaster of isolation, separation and disillusionment. Real disaster situations affords the opportunity to work closely together,” She explained. Her findings and that of most disaster sociologists is that contrary to popular myth, we do not form mobs, we do not panic, and we do not act like lesser-evolved creatures. Instead, we generally are calm, rational problem-solvers that go out of our way to help those around us. It is in fact the elites who panic and the forces of authority who commit crimes ranging from stealing to preventing access to safety and supplies to murder.


Solnit believes “elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image. In a society based on competition, the least altruistic often rise highest. In staying there, they play out a drama akin to the scenarios of Social Darwinism…Those in power themselves are often capable of being as savage and self-serving as the mobs of their worst fears.”


“We devote much of our lives to achieving certainty, safety, and comfort, but with them often comes ennui and a sense of meaninglessness; the meaning is in the struggle, or can be, and one of the complex questions for those who need not struggle for basic survival is how to engage passionately with goals and needs that keep us alive. Much in the marketplace urges us towards safety, comfort, and luxury—they can be bought—but purpose and meaning are less commodifiable phenomena, and a quest for them often sends seekers against the current of their society.”


Disasters are instead moments when you can be larger than yourself and feel part of a community in a way that seldom seen in modern society. It is unfortunate however, that it takes life-threatening dangers for a community to feel whole again. “We need meaning and purpose in order to survive, and we need them so profoundly we sometimes choose them over our own survival.”


“Hunter-gatherers and others that live close to the bone daily experience risk and daily remake the circumstances of their survival. They are bound together by an urgent necessity that is also a satisfaction. Though it is easy to romanticize such ways of life and forget that they impose limitations on choice, pleasure, privacy, ease, and the individuality that is both our privilege and our wound, it also reminds us that if life was in some sense once always a disaster… in which peril came accompanied by solidarity and urgency. There are good reasons we left behind that existence, but we left behind with it something essential, the forces that bind us to each other, to the moment, to an inherent sense of purpose.”


Protests and celebrations can help us to get back in touch with this feeling of belonging we need to survive. Although the book was written before the Occupy Movement was manifested, in her talk she commented on how much the live ins looked like the aftermath of an earthquake—all kinds of people living together in tents and the formation of community kitchens that turned no one away. Many homeless took advantage of the situation; finally receiving the mutual aid the government had so long denied them.


“In a disaster you find out what’s solid and what’s rotten.” And that includes financial disasters too.


In both the 1906 earthquake and more recently in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, authorities treated victims as criminals. In many instances shooting perceived looters in need of food and medical supplies, prioritizing aid to the wealthy, while denying others due to race, and over all causing more harm than good. But San Francisco has learned from its mistakes and now understands what a great resource its citizens can be.


As a part of the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team program, anyone can get training on how to react in disaster, to save lives and safely evacuate and obtain resources. Then when disaster does strike, those trained can display their certification card to access dangerous zones that civilians wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed to enter even if they are able to help. San Francisco authorities see the need and desire for everyday people to help in times such as these, so now its time for San Franciscans to take advantage of this extraordinary policy.


Tomorrow, October 24th at 6pm, Intersection is hosting a NERT workshop, so please join us in becoming part of the growing group of citizens taking responsibility for their own safety and the safety of our communities.


When the sea rises and carries us away is a weekly blog series featuring writings and photographs by Larisa Minerva. Holding the title of her most recent body of work, the blog will discuss art and culture as it relates to the rising fear of global warming and natural disasters, as well as what it means for something to become our past. You can follow her blog at larisaminerva.tumblr.com and see more of her work at Larisaminerva.com.

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