What’s shaking?

Pardon the pun, but today California is having a major statewide earthquake drill. My mother, who has processed claims for the state during disasters since the 1989 quake (the one that busted the SF Bay Bridge) is now taking a couple of days off her regular state gig and joining a crew for a pair of 13-hour work days. The last time she did this, they had situations like: “OK, you’ve got 20,000 homeless people in your county. Where are you going to put them…Whoops, it’s a day later and another 50,000 have walked in from harder-hit areas.”

It sounds like pretty interesting stuff.

Meanwhile, several million people in the south state (where the simulated 7.8 magnitude quake will hit) are doing a variety of drills, including that old favorite, Duck and Cover. And so, I would like to get into the spirit with my own contribution to addressing the excitement, by sharing some thoughts gleaned from years of watching for cooperative responses to disasters. First, here are some observations from our last great disaster, which provided us to horrifying scenes of social breakdown: Hurricane Katrina. This is an excerpt from a manual that I developed to encourage community-based disaster response, titled “Now What?”

In early September of 2005, New Orleans was a picture of chaos. However, there were pockets of order, which centered around those who saw that the situation demanded shared efforts. Rather than surrender to circumstance, they took action to transform a really bad situation into a challenging opportunity to establish networks of mutual aid.


James Montgomery is one of those who organized during the flood. A New York Times article described how he led neighbors at 519 St. Philip Street to meet their needs by acquiring a portable toilet from a nearby construction site. Perhaps without trying, he planted a seed.

Though 519’s residents knew each other from working at a nearby restaurant, the Market Café, they were never particularly close – indeed, Mr. Montgomery and the group’s cook, John Tibbetts, barely spoke.

Now, they do everything communally, down to sharing the dry sneakers, clean T-shirts, food and water they have taken from stores. They justify the looting as necessary to their survival. “I’m not proud of it,” Mr. Tibbetts, 50, said. “But we do what we have to do.” (NYT Sept. 3, 2005)

While this was primarily an inward-looking effort with a strong leader, they did have concern for the neighborhood and played a role in stabilizing it. This role gained them the nickname of “the St. Philip’s militia.”


Another oasis of order was the Hotel le Richelieu. Its management fled the storm, leaving behind what could have been yet another social breakdown. But the staff and guests organized to provide security and “foraging.” Nearly a week after the storm they were somehow still having hot meals. It was surely not what the guests had expected upon checking in, but it remained a pocket of civilization.


By simply being a trace of order amidst the chaos, these efforts gave hope and provided a kernel of restoration, around which others could build. Most people seek the restoration of civility, and will gravitate towards whatever seems the most like what they knew before. We can look at the effect that 519 St. Philip had on its neighborhood, and imagine how differently things might have turned out if it was part of a network of such situations, with a plan for building on whatever foundation was possible.

You can download the whole manual – a work in progress, to be sure, but worth printing out before your power gets knocked out for a week – here: now-what <NOTE: Updated version added here Sept. 2011>

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to people who have been through disaster before, developed community responses, and are gracious enough to share what they learned with the world. The Disaster Survivor Network has a website chock full of guidelines for organizing, addressing both what to do and how to do it: http://www.disastersurvivornetwork.com/

So have a good day everyone. Be grateful that it isn’t a real earthquake and remember that someday, maybe soon, it will be real. And when it does, we’ll all be in it together.

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