Monday, September 11, 2006

Disaster Books

This year has been a year of disaster books for me. In a small way. Earlier this year I read A Crack in the Edge of the World By Simon Winchester about the San Francisco earthquake, and I have just finished Curse Of the Narrows by Laura MacDonald which is the true story of a massive explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917. Both books were excellent and prove interesting reading given the current situation of New Orleans. Most know about the San Francisco earthquake and the resulting fire that destroyed most of the city but in his book Winchester – a geologist by formal education – spends much of the book describing the geological background to the earthquake. Using as a narrative tool his drive across the United States, he describes the geology and geography of the country and provides background on other lesser known earthquakes and geologic points of interest. He actually finishes his journey in Alaska and ‘passes through’ San Francisco to describe the Earthquake. What is comparatively interesting about San Francisco’s reaction to the disaster is the manner in which the city leadership went about dealing with the immediate aftermath and reconstruction. Almost as a circumstance of location and the timeframe in which they lived the city leaders knew instinctively that they couldn’t rely on federal government help and that they needed to take rapid responsibility for their own wellbeing. Help soon arrived and there was an organized mechanism for disbursing and rebuilding the city which got going rapidly. Additionally, it was always assumed that San Francisco was vital to the economy of the west and there was never any doubt of the economic viability and need to rebuild the city.

In December 1917, a munitions ship collided in Halifax harbor with another ship which set off an explosion that remains earths largest conventional explosion ever. The ship exploded in ‘downtown’ Halifax and the force was so strong that Robert Oppenhiemer studied the effects while researching the A-Bomb in 1944. Thousands died and the town was leveled. To make matters worse a blizzard, rain/flooding and another blizzard followed over the next five days and obviously further hampered rescue efforts. Help was sent from the US particularly Massachusetts. Local doctors, who themselves were in shock, were forced to work in terrible conditions for many days as residents were dug out or suffered burns from the ensuing fires. Eye wounds were particularly prevalent because the ship’s explosion was preceded by a fire which ignited the explosives. Many people were caught watching as the shock wave from the explosion blasted every window in town into the faces of the on-lookers. As relief flowed in a citizens emergency group was formed to manage the rebuilding and recovery of the town and a concerted effort was made to take responsibility away from politicians. This was one learning that was gained from the San Francisco recovery effort which some believed had been slowed by politics.

In all these were interesting well written books which are relevant today given the real recovery issues faced in New Orleans. It is fascinating to note that with so much less resource in these two cases, results were fast, early and effective in dealing with the problem at hand. In both cases, the cities were happy for the assistance but they weren’t waiting for someone else to set the priorities and do the job for them. They got stuck in immediately.

Lastly, Laura MacDonald quotes from Disasters a book by J. Byron Deacon published in 1918 which struck me as relevant to our current approach to disasters:

“It is the province of emergency relief to provide for immediate, common
needs. The promptness and completeness with which they are met are the
sole tests of efficiency. The province of rehabilitation is to help each
family meet the needs peculiar to it and return to its normal manner of
life. Its efficiency is tested by the degree to which it succeeds in
accomplishing these results. Emergency relief plans and acts to meet
present needs, rehabilitation plans and acts for ultimate welfare. All
disaster relief should be a process of evolving from dealings with its victims
en masse to treatment of them as individual families…need, not loss, is the
basis of relief; there must be the fullest possible utilization of community and
family resources for self-help; accurate determination of need, family by
family, is the only basis for a just and effective distribution of relief; in
addition to the needs which can be met by monthly gifts, there are others which
can be met only by wise counsel and devoted intelligent personal service.”

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