Sunday, March 15, 2020

Post-Apocalypse and the 1964 Alaska Earthquake

How do people actually behave during a disaster? It varies, of course, but I am fed up with the notion, so widespread in our culture, that people turn into roving bands of vicious criminals. So I bring you Jon Mooallem on the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964:
The Great Alaska Earthquake had a magnitude of 9.2, and it whipped the city of Anchorage around for a full four and a half minutes. Buildings keeled off their foundations, slumped in on themselves or split in half. For two entire blocks, every storefront along one side of the city’s main thoroughfare simply dropped, plummeting into a long, ragged chasm that had ripped open underneath it; one theater marquee came to rest level with the street. Downtown looked “like the devil ground his heel into it,” one witness said.
We actually know quit a lot about how people reacted, because the Defense Department had recently created the Disaster Research Center to study exactly that question.
The Cold War was escalating. In the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, America’s Office of Civil Defense was desperate to prepare Americans for the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. One of the agency’s animating insights was that a bomb dropped on the United States wouldn’t just cause physical destruction, but pandemonium, desperation and barbarism among survivors. “The experts foretold a mass outbreak of hysterical neurosis among the civilian population,” the social scientist Richard M. Titmuss wrote in 1950. “They would behave like frightened and unsatisfied children.” . . .

But when the disaster researchers started touching down in Anchorage, a mere 28 hours after the earthquake, they almost immediately began discovering the opposite: The community was meeting the situation with a staggering amount of collaboration and compassion.

Right after the shaking stopped, ordinary citizens began crawling through the ruins downtown, searching for survivors, and using ropes to heave people out of the debris field under Turnagain. When Presbyterian Hospital started filling with gas after the quake, Boy Scouts who’d been distributing phone books in the neighborhood helped walk the hospital’s 22 patients down three or four flights of stairs, and an armada of taxis and other civilian drivers pulled up outside to evacuate everyone to a second hospital, across town. Outside the crumbling J.C. Penney, bystanders rushed to dig people out, and worked together to tow away a huge section of the fallen concrete facade with their vehicles, then extract a woman who’d been crushed beneath it in her station wagon. “Everybody jumped right in,” one man who’d been on the scene told the sociologists. “Everybody was trying to do a little bit of everything for everybody.”

By daybreak the following morning, hundreds of volunteers had spontaneously converged on the city’s combined police and fire station, similarly eager to pitch in. No one in the city government had anticipated this onrush or put any system in place to manage it. The conventional wisdom was that in a disaster, authorities had to worry about hordes of civilians chaotically fleeing the hardest-hit area. Here, everyone was piling in to help.
The police chief deputized dozens of citizens to prevent looting, but it turned out there wasn't much looting to prevent.

As I said, responses to disaster vary, but the response of the people of Anchorage is far from rare. Our obsession with social breakdown is the weird thing.


G. Verloren said...

The problem with choosing Achorage as a point of analysis for "Post-Apocalypse" is that the broader social order stayed intact - it was a natural disaster, and there was a lot of damage, but people still had full faith in the authorities, and in the state and government, and they had every expectation that things would return to normal.

But that's not what "Post-Apocalypse" is. You point out that there was no breakdown of social order, but fail to recognize that without such a breakdown, there is no apocalypse to speak of, and no real comparison can be made.

A much better point of analysis would be any of countless modern war zone scenarios, where people genuinely have no faith in formal institutions of any kind, and conditions on the ground are unstable and unpredictable - particularly the kinds of situations where there simply isn't enough food to go around, and people are faced with the prospect of immediate starvation. People behave in wildly different manners when they believe that there is no help coming and their survival depends on their willingness to fend for themselves instead of cooperate with others.

That's also why the situation in Anchorage can't really be compared to a nuclear bomb strike. There was no situation in the Cold War where only a single bomb was going to be dropped - if your city got nuked, you all but knew for a fact that everyone else had been nuked as well, and it was the end of the world. You wouldn't expect any help from the government, because they'd all be locked away in bunkers as the plumes of fallout swept across the nation and poisoned the earth, because everyone knew at that point there wasn't a damn thing anyone could do to stop it.

You wouldn't waste time trying to rescue survivors and clear rubble, because you knew that if you didn't get out of the radiation and into a shelter right away, you were dead. You wouldn't share your food, because you knew the soil was going to be poisoned for years, and you'd need every scrap of food possible to survive long enough for farming to be possible again without poisoning yourself with what you grew. There was no point in trying to alleviate the disaster, because nothing you could do would matter if you didn't survive the short term.

That's simply not what anyone in Anchorage had to face in the wake of the earthquake. They knew that help was coming. They knew they weren't going to starve. They knew that they could survive for a while in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, because they'd only face discomfort and cold, not lethal radiation. The social order didn't break down, because it was only a short term disaster. It wasn't an Apocalypse, because the consquences weren't permanent in the long term.

Shadow said...

I don't know about any of this, but I thought a good title for a post-apocalypse novel would be "The Last Pack of Toilet Paper."

I guess all those people who hogged the toilet pager, cough medicine, and food are the same ones who will turn right around and rush in to help.

John said...

@G - speaking of war zone scenarios, how about the Kurdish parts of Syria, where they put together what seems like one of the best governments in the region? Or the Irish Free State that the IRA set up when the repudiated the British government? There are plenty of examples of people who have no confidence in the old government but react, not with chaotic violence, but by setting up new governments to replace the old one.

Anarchy is very rare in human history and an anarchy that lasts for more than a year is even more rare.

G. Verloren said...


This is true, but the original context you bring up is the Defense Department and their Disaster Research Center, who presumably were always concerned with the reaction to a nuclear disaster, not a mere earthquake.

There's a reason most Post-Apocalypse imaginings involve nuclear war, or similarly devastating plagues or other forces. The idea is that what truly makes an Apocalypse is not simply a bunch of buildings being destroyed or people being killed, but there being ongoing local lethal conditions that make rebuilding or forming a new government difficult or impossible.

The Kurdish parts of Syria, the Irish Free State, et cetera, are a form of stability that can only form in pockets of relative safety. Living in a bombed out city ruin isn't the same thing as living on an active battlefield - you can form a government or organize a response to improve conditions only when you're not at immediate risk of death. That risk might only be blocks away, and it might be kept at bay only by constant fighting, but so long as there's a bubble of relative safety to operate in, you can accomplish a lot.

But once that bubble collapses, things are different. The Kurds couldn't form a government if they were forced underground into fallout shelters. The IFS couldn't form if people were forced to maintain strict quarantine for fear of infection. You can't rebuild in a non-secured area. Whether it's radiation or disease or even just enemy soldiers who want to shoot you, if you're not safe enough from a lethal threat to start trying to put things back together, nothing can happen.

David said...

Nuclear war aside, I would agree with John, at least in two senses. One is that the fabled war of all against all, which we are often told is what humans are really all about, is vanishingly rare in human history, particularly for any length of time. The other is that societies with institutionalized governments perceived as legitimate have been, historically, remarkably stable in the face of short- and medium-term disaster, including epidemics. Boccaccio and the scapegoating of the usual targets aside, I'm at a loss to think of any major social or institutional change brought by the Black Death in Europe.

Native American societies in the 16th century and later may be a major exception. Arguably those plagues were simply unique in their severity. I leave the whole topic to John to comment on. But Coronavirus isn't going to affect us like that in any case.

That said, social breakdown does happen. Looting is actually fairly common after things like earthquakes; in this , Anchorage seems exceptional to me. In societies with weak states and weak collective identities on the level ostensibly represented by the state, collapse into prolonged civil conflict based around stronger sub-identities is also pretty familiar (Somalia, Libya, etc.). Arguably the Irish Free State and the Kurds are both examples of the latter; the Kurds seem to have a remarkable internal social cohesion, but their relations with non-Kurds seem pretty unstable (and their Sunni and Shi'ite Arab neighbors do not seem share their internal cohesion).

G. Verloren said...


Solid points, and I feel we are all overall mostly in agreement.

That said, John specifically noted "Our obsession with social breakdown is the weird thing", and while I think I agree in rough principle, I think something John is skipping over is where that (modern) obsession comes form.

Apocalyptic thinking is of course incredibly old, but historically it has mostly come from a religious origin. Simple war and natural disasters are one thing, but you typically needed to combine them with supernatural forces and divine justice / vengeance to really arrive at a truly Apocalyptic piece of culture.

In comparison, I would argue that Post-Apocalypse is a decidedly modern notion, with two chief distinctions. First, there is the notion that an Apocalypse could be brought about through mere human powers rather than requiring supernatural ones. Second, there is the specific notion of Post Apocalypse - the idea that instead of the world literally ending entirely, one might merely face the end of the world as we know it, with life and existence continuing on after the calamity, even if much was lost and things might never be the same.

We see an increase in Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic stories during the 1800s and reach something of a high point in the 1900s. This coincides with similarly drastic increases in technological capability, as well as globally increasing revolutionary fervor and social upheaval. Our collective anxieties over these disruptive forces quite naturally lead us to wonder just how far things might end up going, and whether or not we might bring about our own destruction given time.

For a long time, most of these fears and anxieties were a bit overblown, featuring existential threats that weren't actually realistic at the time - we invisioned strange aliens from other worlds invading and destroying us even before flight was invented, and we imagined robotic servants turning on their masters in an age when the very notion of a robot was still pure fantasy akin to magic, and automatons were still more closely associated with the mystical creations of powerful deities than with any machine humanity could hope to create for themselves.

But once nuclear weapons became a reality, and we crossed the point of no return at which we humans finally possessed the power to bring about an actual Apocalypse by ourselves, without any need for the intercession of a deity, I feel that's when we truly became obsessed with Apocalypse.

Is our obsession with social breakdown really such a weird thing? Yes and no. From a broad perspective, yeah - Apocalyptic thinking is pretty unusual, usually the product of religious millenarianism or similar. But from the narrower perspective of the modern world since the end of World War II? It's arguably not weird at all that we're so preoccupied with social breakdown, because we've lived with the constant and very real possibility of a catastrophe beyond all measure, where total collapse of society would be all but guaranteed in most places.