Amanda Ripley

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A Paradise Built in Hell

12th Apr 2010 posted in Disaster Behavior

I just wrote a review of a strange and compelling book that I want to tell you about. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, is by Rebecca Solnit, an author and essayist.

The book chronicles five disasters—the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax explosion of 1917, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. But instead of rehashing the old stories of suffering and redemption, Solnit focuses on the ways many people seemed to thrive in some ways in the midst of all that loss. It is a rarely discussed truth about disasters—they provide a sort of clarity and community that is lacking in normal times. And Solnit makes the point that if we are too become a more resilient society, we need to understand the “joy” of disasters as much as we understand the pain.

I found the book to be thoughtful and smart—right up to the point when Solnit lectures us on the media and the rest of the “elites” who perpetuate disaster myths. I am not one to defend the media coverage of disasters, as is evidenced throughout this blog, but I found her condemnations to be more preachy than productive. We have to understand why reporters mischaracterize disasters if we hope to do better; righteous indignation is satisfying, but it doesn’t get us anywhere at this point.

That said, the book is a provocative exploration of the dark chasm between disasters as we expect them to be and as they are. The review came out today in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and you can download the full review at no charge here here.