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.” . . .The police chief deputized dozens of citizens to prevent looting, but it turned out there wasn't much looting to prevent.
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.
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.