Disaster Preparedness of the Mind

Rebecca Solnit writes at Yes! Magazine about how racial stereotypes affect perceptions about people's behavior in the wake of a disaster:

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.”...

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.

From movies, we're trained to think that in the wake of a crisis, people run around willy-nilly and scream and cry and start irrationally shaking the person next to them. But if you actually talk to people who've lived through disasters, as Amanda Ripley did for her book, The Unthinkable, you find that panic tends to mean the opposite: people go into shock and often find themselves unable to move or react -- they play dead, essentially, hoping the threat will go away.

One way to avoid that sort of mental log jam is to practice thinking creatively and flexibly. A California disaster preparedness group called CARD, for instance, runs workshops in which participants are asked to think of all the uses they might put every day objects like paperback books to if they're caught in the aftermath of a flood or an earthquake. The message is that, even without following the government's instructions for putting together a disaster kit, people are resourceful enough to figure out how to deal with the situation themselves.

In a way, Solnit's advocating the same sort of flexibility: In a post-disaster crisis, people don't need to rely on instructions from the government or the media about how to perceive their neighbors. She writes, "The emphasis on looting implies that, in a crisis, we’re all wolves, taking ruthless advantage of and preying on each other. … 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." That's true about people in general, including Americans, not just people who happen to live in Japan.