Rebecca Solnit

A Paradise Built in Hell

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A Paradise Built in Hell Summary

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A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2011), a non-fiction book by American author Rebecca Solnit, examines the resiliency of human beings in the face of deadly catastrophes, including the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 and Hurricane Katrina. According to The New York Times, A Paradise Built in Hell is “a landmark book that gives impassioned challenge to the social meaning of disasters.

The author divides the book into five major parts, each devoted to a different disaster: The 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 1917 Halifax munitions cargo ship explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the events of September 11, 2001, and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The author also touches more briefly on events including the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the London Blitz bombing assault during World War II. Her broad thesis is that, in the wake of a disaster, a feeling crops up that is “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.” Studying this emotion, she adds, affords scholars like her “an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility” and “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake with a moment magnitude of 7.9 struck Northern California along the coast. Communities spanning nearly 400 miles, from Salinas to Eureka, could feel high intensity shaking during the event. The most damage was caused in San Francisco, where the quake and especially the subsequent fires killed up to three thousand people and destroyed eighty percent of the city. Like all the disasters chronicled here, the author identifies two divergent trends: the everyday community members are models of resiliency and altruism, while the local and federal officials tend to exacerbate the problem. She quotes the psychologist William James who traveled from Stanford to San Francisco to observe the community’s response to the disaster and who wrote a chapter about “the Mental effects of the Earthquake” in the book, Memories and Studies. James was extraordinarily impressed by how ordinary citizens used improvisation to create order from chaos. Meanwhile, Mayor Eugene Schmitz appointed a U.S. Army captain to lead a special police force. This force was accused of shooting those suspected of looting on sight. Of looting, Solnit describes this as attempts by citizens to “aggrandize their resources.”

On December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship carrying high explosives collided with a Norwegian vessel in a strait connecting Halifax Harbor and Bedford Basin located in a highly-populated urban area of Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada. Six million pounds of material was launched a thousand feet in the air, showering the Richmond district of Halifax in “white-hot shrapnel” and killing between fifteen hundred and two thousand people. Virtually everything in a half-mile radius was obliterated. The blast also created a tsunami that caused further death and destruction. In the wake of the explosion, community members worked to dig survivors out of the rubble. Authorities, however, threatened rescue efforts by evacuating the area because of unfounded rumors that the blast was the result of a German bomb.

On September 19, 1985, an earthquake with a moment magnitude of 8.0 struck Mexico City, killing five thousand people and destroying much of the city. The cash-strapped and politically-motivated ruling party, the PRI, rejected aid from the United States despite the fact that it would have likely saved many lives. Meanwhile, citizens organized their own rescue and shelter efforts independent of the government. However, the ruling party threatened these efforts for a long while, vowing to shut them down if the improvised aid groups didn’t incorporate themselves into the corrupt and cash-strapped PRI.

While Solnit has nothing but praise for the first responders and other official rescue efforts in the wake of the September 11 attacks that killed nearly three thousand people in downtown Manhattan, she is highly critical of George W. Bush’s suggestion in the wake of attacks that Americans should “go shopping.” This, the author says, threatened to quash the “surge of citizenship” that took place after September 11. She goes into detail here about the idea of “elite panic” that sets in among the upper classes who believe wrongly that the under-class will react to disaster in the worst way possible.

The final and arguably most enlightening section of the book focuses on New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina, which in August of 2005 caused the deaths of nearly two thousand people. In the wake of the hurricane, racist rumors spread about predominantly black men looting, killing, and raping with impunity. Mobs of white vigilantes formed to patrol the streets in a fascist, militaristic fashion. The media amplified these fears by playing footage of the very worst behavior on-repeat on television. Meanwhile, Solnit writes that the dismal conditions inside the Superdome, where displaced families were being held, could have been avoided had the city not closed the bridge to Gretna, Louisiana. “Most of the people in the Superdome and Convention Center could have walked away from the squalor, the shortages, the suffering, and easily been evacuated from the unflooded side of the river,” she writes. She also quotes a New Orleans minister who tells her, “Can you imagine during 9/11, the thousands who fled on foot to the Brooklyn Bridge? What if they had been met by six or eight police cars blocking the bridge, and cops firing warning shots to turn them back?”

A Paradise Built in Hell is equally inspiring and dispiriting, a heartening look at human resilience with a justifiably pessimistic view of local and federal government officials.