In a Disaster, Humans Can Behave … Pretty Well, Actually

And then people started coming down to the radio station.

At the time, it was not a crazy idea to hear people passing messages over the radio. And people who had heard KENI on the radio then just showed up, either at the radio station itself or to Genie’s counter at the police station, where she eventually started broadcasting from.

The first messages that were being passed were distraught people looking for their children, their sister, their neighbors. Or trying to tell other people that they were OK.

Over the next 48 to 72 hours, it just swelled into this enormous collaborative project where you had ham radio operators who were helping to pass messages down to the lower 48. Other ham radio operators within the lower 48 were then passing messages along.

It was this thing that happened invisibly—a network that just emerged.

For me it was very vivid, you could picture these lines spreading and branching. I find something really moving about that and really beautiful.

She’s essentially getting retweeted as people check themselves in safe.

There are so many weird similarities and dissimilarities to things now—they were basically sort of inventing Twitter.

And people showed up to help and organize and be useful in a really calm and contained way, which is often not how we think of disasters unfolding.

I had all these firsthand accounts of individual stories. There was this one Public Works employee who’s just like, “Let’s get it done,” and he starts organizing volunteers.

Sociologists have names for this phenomenon. It’s called “emergent organizations.” Basically it’s this idea that people will form ad hoc groups to address particular problems and organize themselves in these moments of crisis.

There’s another one called “extending groups,” where groups that existed to do one thing are now changing their work or adapting their work to respond to the emergency. So you had a mountain rescue group, which was basically just like a hobbyist club of mountain climber guys who would get together on weekends and practice avalanche training for their own enjoyment. They maybe had one or two real emergency calls a year. Now suddenly they’re adapting their own organization to do search and rescue in an urban environment, just because there’s no one else who’s qualified to do it or has any sense of how you organize something like this.

Like, who’s more qualified to search a few blocks of ruins. Is it a fire department, or is it people who have searched wilderness collapses like landslides?

They didn’t find very many people though.

It took days to figure that out. The assumption was that hundreds of people were going to be dead. And it was very disconcerting at first that no one was finding them. But the people who were under the impression that they were first responders were actually second or third responders in a lot of these locations, because people who were there in the moment had already done a lot of hard work to try to get people out.

When you’re going through Genie’s boxes at the end, you have this beautiful moment where you write, “Time itself started to seem like a slow-moving natural disaster, imperceptibly shaking everything apart. Maybe nothing in our world is durable or stable. Maybe everything runs on pure chance. [How are we] supposed to live on the surface of such unbearable randomness. What can we hold onto that’s fixed?” Would you embellish on those words today, this week, where we are in the midst of this rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic?

I mean, if you had any doubt now that that’s true … I don’t feel like it’s a new idea, or it’s an idea that takes a lot of explaining at this particular moment, whereas it might have in the book.



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