Time Magazine had a cover article this week on how to survive a disaster. Most of the advice was quite useful (plan ahead, do drills, use your everyday skills.) But it didn’t cover the most important problem of all—how do you know there is a disaster happening, and that your normal behavior won’t work this time? For instance, German Jews between the election of Hitler and his invasion of Poland mostly had no idea they were in the runup to what would turn out to be the greatest catastrophe ever to befall world Jewry. Many of them had access to good information, enough money to emigrate and resettle quite comfortably, and nothing hampering their mobility. Why didn’t they leave, or at least set up a bolt-hole to get to in a hurry?
Similarly, on a much smaller scale, women whose husbands or boyfriends abuse them almost always underestimate the seriousness of the threat—sometimes until it has culminated in murder. The escalating pattern of control and violence gets worse a bit at a time, always staying within the limits of what the woman sees as “normal, while the definition of “normal” changes with imperceptible slowness. There is rarely a bright line, except—I have heard this again and again—a threat to the children, or an episode of violence flaring out beyond the “normal” to what the victim sees as near-death.
The Time article emphasized the importance of preparedness, of being aware of what could happen. Obviously that varies from place to place and time to time. In Florida and the Gulf Coast, it’s hurricanes. In the Midwest, it’s tornadoes. In California, it’s darn near everything—fires, floods, earthquakes, landslides. Fires can happen anywhere. So can plane and car crashes.
But the writers never dealt with our problematic reactions to “normal” disasters. I grew up in South Florida, during a period when hurricanes were regular events. We had our standard responses to them—you fill up the bathtub with water, stock up on kerosene for the lanterns, batteries for the radio, and food that requires no refrigeration or cooking; you shutter the windows and doors, you bring in the lawn furniture, and then you hunker down until the Weather Bureau says it’s okay to go outside. That was the normal response to a normal disaster. Would that have sufficed during Katrina? Probably not. But by the time the locals figured that out, it would have been too late, precisely because they had done all the normal things that usually worked, and weren’t alert for any sign that something else was needed.
Similarly, the German Jews had their own normal responses to normal outbursts of anti-semitism. Keep your passport up-to-date, keep all your important papers readily available, wear your World War I medals, stay off the streets and out of trouble, don’t make waves. For the previous century or so, that had been enough. By the time the locals figured out that this was an entirely different situation, a whole order of magnitude different, it was too late.
Abused women have their own normal responses. Don’t do anything to annoy him, keep the children out of his way, be the perfect homemaker, don’t talk back, stay out of his way when he’s drinking, and so on. Most of the time they work. Sometimes they don’t.
Paradoxically, sometimes our “normal” preparation for “normal” disasters gets in the way of realizing that there is a real disaster out there. You go through one fire drill after another assuming that, since this is a drill, it’s okay to go back and get your purse or your briefcase. You do everything the Red Cross tells you to do before a hurricane, but you figure it’s not for real so it’s okay to leave one window un-boarded so the place won’t look so gloomy.
The Time writers tell us that proper preparedness assures that, once you shift into disaster mode, you will do the right thing. But how do you tell when you need to shift into disaster mode? Only the real professionals can figure that out. Sometimes even they get it wrong. The rest of us are at the mercy of luck. (When the tsunami struck South Asia a few years ago, one vacationing schoolgirl noticed that the water was receding down the beach well below its usual level. She had just learned in her science class that this was the beginning of a tsunami, and she got her family and all of the people around her to run to high ground before the water came back up—and up, and up. By the luck of being in the right place at the right time, she, and her science teacher, saved lives. But most of the other people in the area either didn’t notice, didn’t think the sudden receding water meant anything, or thought this was a great opportunity to go clamming.)
We all tend to make fun of survivalists. In December, 1999, a friend of ours urged us to stock up on canned goods and bottled water in case Y2K turned into a real disaster. Figuring it couldn’t hurt, we did. We bought a wind-up radio and stocked up on batteries for the flashlights. I gassed up the car. I made a point of putting our important papers, our family photographs, and the cat carrier where we could find them in a hurry. A couple of months later, I donated most of the canned goods to a food pantry. We drank the bottled water. We haven’t had any real disasters since then, thank heaven. That minor preparedness was certainly better than nothing. Maybe it’s the best we can do—ride the fine line between ignorance and paranoia and hope we’re on the right side of it when the real disaster comes.