Solnit shares experiences writing book about disaster situations, stressing importance of understanding

Jack Dodson

The Berlin Wall. Haiti. Earthquakes in San Francisco. Hurricane Katrina. Sept. 11, 2001. The uprising-revolution in Egypt and surrounding countries. All of these things have at least one thing in common: they were scrutinized by journalist Rebecca Solnit in her pursuit to understand human interaction with disaster.

Rebecca Solnit speaks about her book, "A Paradise Built in Hell" in Whitley Auditorium Feb. 21. Photo by Jack Dodson/The Pendulum.

Solnit, a freelance writer who focuses on areas like high culture, environment and disaster studies, visited Elon University Feb. 21 to talk about her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell.” The book tackles various disaster situations — everything from Cold War-era revolutions to Hurricane Katrina — and analyzes the way media covers the issues, and the impacts it has on people.

Her lecture was a part of the Liberal Arts Forum’s spring speaker series, which brings academic lecturers to campus a few times every semester. Other speakers this semester include Indian activist Vandana Shiva and telemedicine expert Jay Sanders.

“What does [disaster] tell us who we might be, who we could be?” Solnit asked.

For her, disaster is intriguing. Everything from the misunderstanding of media to disaster to the benefits that can come out of extreme hardship and loss is covered in her book. In these cases, though, media can play a large role in how society views the disasters.

There was a moment when it all could have been different,” Solnit said, referring to the media’s coverage of Sept. 11, 2001. “And the Bush administration did a great job of killing off that moment.”

She said it was the push toward nationalism that kept criticism off the government, and media allowed that to happen.

Solnit talked about the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and how media made it seem that people were looting — when, in fact, they were usually taking things they needed to stay alive.

Earlier in the day, while she was talking to a reporting class on campus, Solnit talked about how there had been some good coverage of Katrina, and that some reporters had actually reported fairly on what was going on in New Orleans.

“Some reporters really did a fantastic job on the ground,” she said. “They were literally rescuing people and directing rescue operations.”

But, for the most part, the coverage perpetuated a way of looking at disaster that was incorrect.

Solnit gave her recommended readings for journalism students. Graphic by Jack Dodson.

“They call running a ‘mob,’” she said, “even though running is the only sensible thing to do.”

She said media tend to believe rumors, and help them spread. In the case of Katrina, this was the coverage of looting.

“I think a lot of it was racism — that black people were savages.” “They started spreading these rumors about rapes and murders and they got really obsessed with looting.”

But, when it comes down to it, she said these extreme situations bring out good in people.

“In disaster, people come together,” Solnit said. “Lasting change can come from disasters.”

She said people become better versions of themselves in the midst of crisis.

“Every day life ceases to exist as it has been and fend for themselves and improvise,” Solnit said. “People rise to that occasion.”

And in order to gather all this information, Solnit she traveled to each of these places at least once. She spoke to survivors, disaster experts, witnesses and people impacted by the disasters. In researching Katrina, she became fascinated and has been to New Orleans 12 times since the 2005 hurricane.

Before she went to each place, she used Internet and scholarly research to learn about the disasters that took place there. There was the Halifax explosion in Nova Scotia. Three-Mile Island. The 2004 tsunami in fourteen countries in the Indian Ocean.

And for her, a lot of it comes down to being an effective writer — a creator, helping people to see things they normally wouldn’t.

“I think that we’re all constantly creating the culture.”

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