Monday, January 18, 2010

Disaster Response



My blogs of late have focused on cultures and their ability to survive: can a country which did not produce its technology continue to develop it?

Now I am going to take what would seem to be a diversion and focus on a culture's response to disaster. It can and does vary widely. And could be an indicator of its survival as a viable culture.

Where I live we are having a very dry winter and that means we could well have a summer of forest fires. I have survived one of these and was totally amazed at the change in my community. Everyone helped everyone. The spirit of concern and cooperation was amazing. And neighboring mountain towns out of the path of the fire offered places to stay, fields for our livestock, clothing and food.

A dear friend lived through the force five hurricane on the island of Kauai. She has almost romantic memories of her island community in the days after the storm passed. Restaurants threw open their larders and cooked food for the homeless. The residents banded together informally to remove rubble and clear roads. Pooled resources pulled from the wreckage of buildings. While on the mainland survivors of hurricane Andrew, which happened in the same week, waited for relief workers to do all that for them, and whined to cameras that they were being neglected. There was no ice water.

Stories are coming out of Haiti following the earthquake that are deterring the deployment of relief workers. The Red Cross is holding off sending in workers until they know the streets are safe. Doctors without borders at one time withdrew its medical personnel for their own safety while the CNN cameras rolled. There are reports of looting and gangs running around with machetes. But when Kyoto, Japan suffered an earthquake its citizens established camps in the streets, away from falling buildings, and pooled all their meager resources. And began the rescue of people trapped in the debris.

What makes the difference in how a community or culture responds to a disaster? Why do some erect idols and just pray for deliverance, while others immediately set to work helping themselves? Kyoto and Kauai would lead one to believe that island people don't expect rescue and ergo set out to rescue themselves. But then Haiti is an island. And the New Mexico mountain communities threatened by forest fire are not. But it has been my experience they immediately start setting up plans for not only their survival but the rescue of their neighbors.

Is it the presence of camera? Anthropologists believe that when a culture is studied it changes. The StarTrek show and movies always emphasized that they should not reveal themselves to cultures of lower development.  There were news crews in Florida within hours of hurricane Andrew but not on Kauai after Inki. CNN was on the ground in Haiti within hours of the aftershock. But it took the world almost a week to know about the earthquake damage in Kyoto. Most of the United States does not know New Mexico is one of the 50 states. News people showed up for the Los Alamos fire but not the Hondo fire I watched for 22 days.


Is it the glare of the lights? A cultural development? Or is our response to disaster genetic? What is the basic nature of your community? And where do you fall in your response to disaster? This goes beyond having a survival kit to load into the SUV.