In harm’s way, from earthquakes to terrorism

Disasters can shatter our lives when we least expect them. This may occur in Athens, where we once believed that the city and its millions of residents were far from any fault line and therefore safe from earthquakes, or in New York City or the Pentagon, in the center of the economic and military power of the richest and most powerful nation the world has known. But the more we look at the mayhem caused either by natural phenomena or by technology gone wrong, we can see that man has played the leading role in every disaster and that catastrophe may have been averted. Man’s complicity may range from building his cities in harm’s way, ignoring the natural hazards, or not taking the precautions that could avert a catastrophe. There are, in other words, ways to prepare for disaster if we have chosen to take our chances with the hazards around us. We might build stronger, lighter houses in earthquake zones or keep well away from rivers that might flood. Or we may choose not to see the danger, to avoid recognizing that at some time disaster will strike us too. With disaster comes death, destruction and long-term disruption of lives and society. Ancient survival mechanisms resurface, in combination with modern rescue techniques and aid programs. Survivors and those affected by the disaster, the so-called collateral community, find themselves at once stripped of what they took for granted but also united in a new sense of community and mutual assistance. US anthropologist Susanna Hoffman, who is in Athens to lecture on preparedness and management of disasters, as part of the Fulbright Program’s Aegean Initiative, spoke to Kathimerini’s English Edition on Tuesday on the constants of disaster and on the September 11 terrorist strikes on New York and Washington. Is there any subject more important or exciting than disaster? There is none. It is one of those key moments in many people’s existence and it is something that is threatening us all in an increasing manner. It’s true that there are more disasters than ever before. They are harming more people and doing more damage than they have ever done, and the human element leading to that of course is there – where we have placed people, and what we have allowed to go on unhindered in development and cities. More people live on coastlines. Urbanization so often has taken place where it shouldn’t – as in Mexico City or Istanbul, Florida… or California, one of my favorite examples. In some of these instances one can see that people should have known better, but Istanbul was a city before anybody knew anything about earthquakes. No. That’s not really so. I think what’s happened is that people before recognized their environments and knew the dangers in their environments and they made a calculation and an assessment – all cultures do this – at one moment or another, of whether the danger was worth the risk. In a sense there’s a faucet between danger and risk. All cultures control the flow. They assess whether it is worth their subsistence – what they are gaining from a particular place. But cultures have always had strategies for dealing with their environments. For example, in Peru before the arrival of the Spaniards, they would build scattered houses with very light walls and very light roofs [because of earthquakes]. Disasters are processual events; they come out of processes and there is always a human element. There is no such thing as a disaster without a human element. What has happened in this modern world is that people have been disrupted from their strategies and their assessments. Istanbul burgeoned, Athens burgeoned, nobody expected all of these people here. The strategies to deal with the environment – such as moving away because of a volcanic eruption and then moving back when the ashes cool down – these kind of strategies have disappeared. So globalization, urbanization, colonization, resettlement have all interfered with indigenous strategies and indigenous assessments. There is also – and I think this is the key question with disasters – the concept of vulnerability. And disasters do not occur without vulnerability. All cultures calculate vulnerability. But they calculate it in different ways. Sometimes they recognize all of the dangers around them, sometimes they recognize only some of them, sometimes they deny there is any danger at all, sometimes they see dangers that aren’t even there. Unfortunately, often it is the disaster itself which reveals that people have not recognized vulnerability. California is one of my favorite examples, because Californians recognize the danger of earthquakes. But they are in total denial over firestorms, avalanches and floods which occur more regularly, do more damage and kill more people. But all of us in California have keys to turn off gas systems, while outside our house practically no one has protected his or her yard from fire. The other thing that is the political and hot aspect about vulnerability is that cultures and societies don’t necessarily make everybody vulnerable. There are different populations that are vulnerable, and very frequently it is the poor. It is the poor who are in old neighborhoods, in crumbling houses, on the flood plain. They were on the slippery slope of Acapulco in the last El Nino because the rich had taken all the top land… It is often women and children – in fact I’m going to a UN meeting on disasters and women in Ankara at the beginning of next month. Because women have been left in heavy-roofed houses or multifamily dwellings such as in Athens that collapse like pancakes, and children are in schools, whereas men might be outdoors or in the fields. It is sometimes the elderly or often it is an ethnic group that has been alienated or marginalized so they are in a more dangerous place. So in many senses there is a political aspect to it that is again only revealed after an earthquake. And often an earthquake, or I mean some sort of a disaster, will initiate a political faction or agendas because of what it has revealed. And it will certainly initiate economic agendas because it is very often the economy that is destroyed too. How aware can people be of being in harm’s way? Disasters that don’t come regularly tend to set up maladaptive responses. Something like the Nile delta flood, or the Tigris and Euphrates, they know it is coming. But those that are embedded in the environment – again I’m talking about disasters that are from processes but are erratic – people begin to ignore them and they start to pretend they are not going to come. And then the maladaptive responses become institutionalized, such as no building code or bad building codes. Then you have a calamity. September 11 How has the word disaster changed since Sept. 11? I think disaster had grown to be a euphemism, until we were almost oblivious to it. Disaster was a bad hairdo, a bad date, or a miserable dinner party or event. And suddenly we are brought back to the realization of what disaster really means; it is a tragic calamity that involves death and pain and destruction. I think we have been shaken to stop being indifferent. I also think that people are feeling more vulnerable than they have ever felt. I think America had this illusion of being untouchable and I think that many countries felt similarly. And this particular strike made us all feel vulnerable and we have gone through what I think of as a sort of window – where suddenly we are reassessing our lives. Our structures have been taken away, our exposure is there and we reassess what is important and what is fundamental. And I find while this is an extremely uncomfortable state for people to be in, because it feels alienating and isolating, I always encourage people to exploit it because it is one of those rare times when you look at the deep principles of life, you look at love and caring and tragedy as opposed to your daily events… You look at your family relationships and you come away with more depth, and hopefully we don’t lose it again… It does shut down, slowly but surely, our barricades reassert themselves, we go back into routine and forget about essentials. I think that is how disaster has changed everyone here. We are uncomfortable when we are vulnerable and we know that disaster is a potential in our lives. Old institutions I grew up in the West and I always expected a disaster but I was expecting a partial disaster. I never knew that I would lose absolutely everything. Funny things happen after disasters. Believe it or not, friendships disappear, family reasserts itself, old institutions. Churches come back, they know what to do. Gender patterns come back… It’s like you’ve been thrown back in time. You have to shelter your children, and schools close, so someone has to care for them… You have to get sheets, toothbrushes. And in the case of where there has been death, like this last one, I don’t think people will ever have closure. Is there a difference between a natural disaster and a man-made one? A lot of people in the West divide culture from nature, although much of nature is a cultural concept. It doesn’t really exist. This is nature, we are all on the physical plane. Those things that we ascribe to as caused by nature, we forgive and we put down to fate. Those disasters that arrive from the human community, like Chernobyl, like Bhopal, we find far more frightening. I called them in one piece I wrote The mother and the monster – this one is mother earth and the other is chimera and you don’t know where it comes from and it’s terribly frightening. And it leaves true, long-term devastation and psychological devastation longer. We tend in modern days to launch an inquisition where there has been a technological disaster, to find out who was at fault, who did it. Almost like the witch hunt for natural disaster in medieval times, when you tried to find out who was sinful because God struck. And they have different outcomes. Natural disasters tend to leave death and destruction but not disrupt our relationship with the earth. We can go home again, we can live there again. But technological disasters don’t cause very much destruction often – though they may cause a lot of death – but they ruin our relationship with the earth. We can’t go back. That is a major difference between the two. How does one relate to a disaster caused by humans? It’s very hard for us to forgive something that arises from other humans, because we assume that humans will take care of humans. Of course, we are terrible to humans all the time. We had some rules of the game though? One of the interesting things about disasters is that they reveal the basic rules of all humanity. The fact that people save each other, despite differences. In Santorini in the 1956 earthquake they said, We didn’t care if they were Catholic. They cared before? Yes. Absolutely… People don’t care about race, age, religion, gender. In every culture there is this promotion of human life over death, no matter who it is. There is the fellowship. And then people begin to feed each other and care for each other. Yes, that is the glory of disasters. And the aid that pours out and the sympathy and compassion. At least for quite a while. One of the problems is that from the actual victims in the collateral community the non-victims eventually form an opposition. The collateral community begins to say: Why haven’t they got any work? Why are they greedy? In the meantime the victims tend to disassociate themselves from those who don’t understand. Also, in government programs there has been a tremendous push to ghettoize victims… Jealousy arises. Why are they getting aid, why are they deserving? I can’t tell you how many times I was told, I wish my house had burnt down. I was just flabbergasted: No, you don’t wish your house had burnt down. You had a choice; you got to keep your photographs, your heirlooms. But instead, there was jealousy that we got a new house. It’s quite amazing, the vitriol that can arise and quibbling… And then the definition arises: Who is a victim and who is not a victim? Probably in New York it will be something like those who actually lost a person, those will be the real victims… It is a complex, heartening and disheartening situation. How can we prepare for disasters on this new kind of scale? One of the things I want to do is also advance ideas of what recovery entails, including all these disheartening aspects. And if we know what relief and recovery entail, and how badly they have gone wrong many times, how miscalculated aid has been, how mishandled in many instances, maybe we can get a grip at least on how to alleviate recovery. To see that people are comforted and clothed and sheltered in a better manner. To take their wants and desires into consideration and make them in fact foremost rather than our own desires. In Cyclone Tracy in Australia the government came in and redesigned the town and the people were outraged. The government came in and took all the women and children away. Very rarely do agencies and governments and NGOs aid groups go to the people and say: What do you want? What is your idea? How will aid help you? Frequently aid is given to the men and not to women… In India, nobody thought to replace gold bracelets. That’s a woman’s only wealth. That is how she would survive if her husband died or divorced her… Would the empowerment of individuals help guard against disaster and help in recovery? Empowerment of individuals and more local attention rather than mass governmental attention. Recovery is always on a local level, it always has to do with prior local patterns. Again, nuancing recovery and the way we look at disaster so that we recognize all the population involved. Here is one that was revealed in Hurricane Andrew: The people were put in tent cities. They stayed for long periods of time. Obviously the men and women had lost their work, domestic violence rose phenomenally, and that’s not all – teenage suicide was terrible. Because no one recognized that this population of very precarious adolescents needed space. It’s very delicate. I think that is why anthropology is an important field in dealing with disaster, because in the first place we deal with all the planes, the physical plane, the environmental plane, the social-cultural plane and biological medical plane. The linguistic plane. Is separating danger from risk something that you want to do? Etymology plays a big role in your work as well. Anthropologists tend to think of things in the long term. And so in dealing with disaster I and my colleagues start with archaeology. We can tell from archaeology, as in Santorini, what happened and what are some of the hazards. We can see how communities recover. A good historical anthropologist can look through the archives of a nation and say, Why did they suddenly change from ‘barley’ to ‘wheat,’ or other kinds of things and then know that something destroyed the fields, from looking at economic records. So we look at history and archaeology. We know… that people recover very well from single catastrophes; what they don’t recover from is collateral catastrophes – the second strike seems to be the knock-out strike. So you can look at Peru and say, now they had an El Nino but on top of that they had an earthquake and that is when the fields disappear, there is a new religion, there is a new government… That there has been a human element and something embedded in the environment or the technology, as developed over time, that leads to a disaster. Disaster always has both those problems. Something like defeating an enemy nation and ploughing salt into its earth? Something like that. Let’s say it’s colonization. It’s a force that made people live together and put heavy roofs on, barrel tiles, when they should never have done that. Let’s go back to New York. It’s a single strike. Is there a danger of something like this degenerating into a collateral catastrophe, a reaction in which a city or a nation changes from what it was? In a way, you can see what happened in New York as the collateral disaster. It was the aftermath of what was building up and should have been seen. There were strikes before, that building had been struck before. So this is the chronic – the next strike, in a sense, not the first one. There was vulnerability and there was denial. Governments have always used disaster as a means of controlling people and controlling events. The threat of the monster coming, of the flood. In China, the floods were used to move massive populations. The monster of disaster is used as a control. You better behave, better not talk. The kinds of things you’re talking about, yes, I suppose are the nuanced things that can happen to a population. One of the things that struck me lately and has come from Britain and not from America, is what I’m seeing as a wave of anti-intellectualism. Quotations taken out of context, like The American flag is a symbol of terror to many people – and that is thrown up in the air, you can see the symbolism of the tall towers being struck, and taken out of context… In truth the flag is looked at as a symbol of terror; perhaps a professor was saying that these are the reasons why, this is what history has led to and this is what the media is promoting in other countries and how people have been manipulated. But to take these things… I am seeing a wave of anti-intellectualism potentially there. People have done one of the things that does happen when the monster threatens and that is they have sequestered themselves. Americans aren’t going anywhere right now. Restaurants are empty, airplane travel is down 35-40 percent… We become more conservative. Disasters always present change and people always resist change. And the threat of change always makes a conservative element… And that is what’s happening, there is a conservative wave. And we will go back to old traditions. I don’t know if you can call that a disaster. It is a result, a consequence and effect. Is the road open to go back, to being more conservative, when we are what we are already? We’ve lived the future, can we go back? We’ve lived the future but the future doesn’t have as deep of a hold on us as millennia of systems. Culture is a deep pervasive thing, and the old patterns are very hard to change. And they give us comfort as well, we understand their structure. And so, yes, we rely on them. Is this a time for poetry? The first thing that arises out of disaster, almost the very first thing, is the initiation of ceremony. And rites and rituals. Almost inevitably, one of the most interesting processes that happens is that they are on the site of the disaster, as if to reclaim it. We will make it ours, we will stamp it and say it cannot be taken from us. And with that also comes an outpouring of art work, from children and others, a tremendous amount of writing, photography… In a sense it brings a regeneration of spirit and, as I was saying earlier, an essence of human life. And I don’t know a human who is not creative. We are an amazing species… I believe in humans. I think we are the most innovative, inventive, creative, amazing species and I trust us to solve these problems. I trust us. I think we will. And we have each other. We are all collateral community in this disaster. Everyone. The whole world. This one will live in legend. Many disasters are forgotten. Some live in legend. We will come out enriched. It is a horrible way to come out enriched but it is one of the aftermaths of disaster. And, hopefully, the spirit of unity that we have got now will go on. It has been amazing. Susanna M. Hoffman Dr. Hoffman is an anthropologist (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) who lost her home and office in the Oakland firestorm of 1991. Her experience led her to become a student of catastrophes. Among her works on disaster are The Angry Earth (Routledge, 1999) and Culture and Catastrophe (SAR Press, 2001), both co-written and edited with Dr. Anthony Oliver-Smith. Her articles cover topics ranging from the anthropological perspective on disaster, a model of the stages in disaster recovery, gender issues in disaster, social and culture change after a calamity, and the ideologies people use to deal with catastrophes. By happenstance, she has also worked in Greece for a long time and has a book on the history of anthropology of Greek food from ancient to modern times coming out next year, The Olive and the Caper (Workman Press). Among her other academic works are the Emmy-winning film The Nature of Culture (PBS, 1982) and the award-winning Kypseli – Women and Men Apart: A Divided Reality (EMC, U.C. Berkeley, 1974). She has also written for the popular audience and is a frequent guest on talk shows. Since losing her home and possessions, she writes from New York City and Telluride, Colorado.

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