Disaster movies have given us much. Images of huge, radioactive ants devouring 1950’s police cars, for instance. But to increase the tension and give our heroes something to react to the producers of these films, which serve as the template for how many of us assume a real-life crisis will unfold, have for more than 80 years perpetrated some pretty fucked-up ideas about how humans actually respond when faced with a societal challenge. So, as a public service, The Clam is going to dispel a few myths around human reactions to disasters. Let this be the last word on the subject.
1. People don’t really panic What? But the classic chest-high shot of a screaming crowd fleeing the scene? What of that? And later in the film, who is the hero going to punch in the face when we realize that the real enemy is not the zombies, but the evil within ourselves? Speaking of zombies, I recently re-watched George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead again, the one from the ‘60s. I had forgotten how little of that movie is actually zombies in favor of the argument between survivors trapped in a house around whether to hide upstairs or down in the basement instead. It’s really the central conflict of the film.
Reality- people usually keep their cool and respond rationally to a real crisis (which is more than you can say for a manufactured one, like losing a hockey game). Think about all the crises that have occurred recently- from Katrina to Hurricane Sandy. Folks are pretty chill, actually. They know what needs to get done and they do it in a remarkably organized fashion. It’s true even here. Sure The Basket is a crowded hellzone before a storm, but it’s only somewhat more of a crowded hellzone than usual. No one is burning down the place or punching people, we reserve that kind of behavior for shopping on Black Friday which interestingly is not a time of real scarcity, but of imagined crisis among a group of consensual participants (and by participants I mean “idiots”).
In Gloucester the only time I’ve ever seen anyone panic in the face of a disaster was after the Japanese Fukishima meltdown. A clerk in the convenience store where I buy beer started yelling at the TV about the radiation “It’s in ouah aiah! It’s in ouah fuckin aiah!” and could not be consoled by my sci-splaining that we get more absorbed doses of ionizing radiation from eating a banana (0.1 sv) than we could ever get from the other side of the world. Instead, she told me she’d have to go outside to smoke a cigarette to calm down before ringing me up.
2. Most people think altruistically during crises and help out their neighbors This flies in the face of everything we think we know. It’s just assumed that everyone will hoard food, screw their neighbors over for the last leg of dogmeat (sorry Thisbee) and we are all essentially one step from donning leather outfits and forming armed bands of brigands who roam the countryside in jacked up vehicles.
The reality is much more like a Unitarian pot luck. Everyone brings something to the table and folks help each other out in whatever way they can (although Unitarians are more likely to label the gluten/dairy free dishes).
In Sandy people with electricity created makeshift charging stations for those without. This in New York of all places, the city where a dude will urinate on you in the subway and then indignantly go “What?” when you cast him a shady glance. In Katrina folks pooled resources as some people went out to find supplies even as resources grew desperately scarce.
There was a lot of that last week, those with snowblowers running around helping out, folk checking in on neighbors, etc. When the whole thing was over one the woman up the street came by with a fresh, hot loaf of bread because my daughter and I literally spent no more than ten minutes on a short section of her walkway she couldn’t get to.
I hazard that in many, even perhaps all of us crave this kind of connection. I get to run around with the snowblower helping out my neighbors while also confusing them by yelling, “I’m going for the power generators!” and she gets to bake and help out that way. A lot of us want more meaning in our daily lives and the storm provided a sense of purpose, a chance to be noble. Also: baked goods.
A note on looting (and by looting I mean taking jeans and big-screen TVs NOT diapers and soup from an abandoned supermarket in the midst of a major crisis): This is going to sound weird, but I’m going to put this out there: If you’re a criminal or of that mindset then looting is simply a more rational way of getting stuff. The store owners are not at their places of business, the alarms are disabled and the cops are busy or incapacitated. It’s obviously wrong and I’m down with extremely harsh repercussions on them, but it’s not like we see evidence of looters breaking into houses and taking the fresh water and baby food. Usually it’s consumer goods useless to surviving the crisis at hand taken because they are atypically unguarded. It’s like leaving the back of an armored truck full of cash bags open on a rural road. Some of those bags will be missing after enough time.
3. More info is better than less It turns out when people do panic or act in stupid ways it’s because they don’t know what’s going on and feel trapped. Here I want to both commend and criticize our local response to the last storm. There was a lot of information, and a lot of it was good and even free from the usual “Ohjesusgodit’sfuckingsnowwe’reallgonnadie” local TV news bullcrap. But the communication was all over the place.
In Gloucester, we need to centralize the official information to one source- it can take feeds from all over, but it all has to be in one place. It can’t be the Mayor’s personal Facebook page, it can’t be The Bridge (?) or Good Morning Gloucester. They can have their own feeds but it has to go to a central location. It should be the town’s official website, official Facebook page and Twitter account along with all-call.
I don’t envy the position of Mayor Sefatia with all the folks who come to her because she is one of the few people who can reliably get shit done in this town. But we’ve got to separate the personal from professional business. Her official statements issued during times like this need to be short and as coherent as possible. I like her “just getting it out there” style a lot, but I’d hate to see one of her personal statements about the storm misconstrued as official and have her excoriated by outside media who don’t get her.
So, the last myth is a twofer- yes more information is better than less, but info has to be consolidated and clear otherwise it will simply frustrate people when a critical bit of info slips past and leave well-meaning people open to criticism if, God forbid, something really bad happens and the press decide to check the “Wayback Machine” of the Internet and find a lot of mixed and garbled communications from official sources.
Since the storm was named “Juno” we can think back to the teen pregnancy scandal and remember what dicks the media were to everyone in Gloucester in pursuit of the most salacious story they could tell. Let’s not give them that chance again.
Because giant, radioactive ant season is coming.