Lessons I’m Learning from Disaster


Just that one word probably pulls up images that we’ve all seen in the past week or so. The one of the woman with dried vomit and blood on her face, covered by a whitish coating of what I presume is pulverized cement powder.

A dear friend of mine was there, working on access to clean water for the many in Haiti who didn’t have access to clean water before the earthquake. He survived. Ironically, the UNDP base managed to keep its internet link up (I’m guessing it was satellite-based), and my friend posted to his Facebook profile that he was okay.

Not so much for the millions in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. There are (were) a majority of people in that little patch of island, eking out an existence (most definitely not “a living”) on less than the local equivalent of $2 a day. Could you exist on less than $2 a day wherever you live? More than a billion people around the world do it. All day. Every day.

And Yet …

And yet, as we’re seeing the very literal dust begin to settle in Haiti … supplies are starting to get through, the injured (who survived long enough) are beginning to be treated properly… we’re seeing the survivors, well, surviving.

They’ve moved their little charcoal stoves (think campfire; not Frigidaire) out into areas free of debris, and not in the shadow of partially fallen buildings, and they’re cooking. They’re pulling the one or two things they had out of the pile that was once their house, and are preparing to rebuild … again.

These folks get slammed by hurricanes regularly. An earthquake is effectively the same, without all the water. And because they don’t have much to begin with, they are great at picking up and moving forward.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not at all romanticizing what has happened there. I was in Turkey for a similarly-sized earthquake. I know what happens to improperly-mixed cement when the ground undulates. The one Turkish word I am least likely to ever forget is deprem (earthquake).

What I’m Trying To Say…

What would you (or I) do in a similar situation? Could we, as wealthy (in that global relative sense of wealth) individuals who suddenly lost everything to some natural disaster, survive? Think an earthquake measuring 10. Think a tsunami that reaches Colorado or Ohio. Think a plague or pandemic. Think the unthinkable.

Once we got past the point of trying over and over to get a mobile phone signal, what would we do? I know some might curl up in a Twitter-withdraw ball, but you’ll eventually get hungry.

How many of us know how to build a fire without matches or a lighter to start it? Do you know how to filter contaminated water so it’s safe to drink? What’s the right thing to do with your personal waste? Do you know which plants you can eat and which ones will kill you? Did you memorize enough episodes of MacGyver that, given enough of a supply of duct tape, you could overcome the bad guys who will inevitably take advantage of the situation?

Most of us who survived one of those natural disasters would die of our own ignorance not long after. Without wikipedia to help us get through it, we areĀ  in trouble.

Unless …

If we watch the ways in which the Haitians pull together, and learn from it, we might have a chance. If we think and plan ahead, we might survive. We do not have to descend into the morass of violence and murder in order to make a way forward. I’m not talking about utopia here folks, I’m talking about being smart now; before you actually need to be.

Maybe the Haitians are still living life in closer connection to the earth than we are. Maybe that’s mostly necessity, but still, that connection – that understanding is what’s helping those who survived the initial disaster to survive now. Because they’re accustomed to needing to work together to survive, they’re continuing to work together, in spite of radical shortages of food, water, shelter, and medical care.

That’s not to say there aren’t bad guys there, taking instead of sharing, but they seem to be in the minority.

Projections by doomsayers in the US indicate that survivors of a natural disaster here won’t be able to make it without resorting to violence and hording.

I want to believe that’s not true.

I want to believe that we’re capable of rising above our spoiled, privileged existence to care for our neighbors as well as ourselves in the midst of a disaster. We saw hints of this in New York nearly 9 years ago. We saw fewer hints of it in New Orleans in 2005.

I’m not harping on preparations for an unknown disaster here. In the 1950s, people installed “bomb shelters” in their back yards out of that kind of fear orientation. Instead, I’d like to suggest that we make a conscious decision here and now that, in the face of the unimaginable, we will continue to be human beings and that we will see those around us as human beings as well.

Remember that earthquake I mentioned before? The one in Turkey? The one I was caught in?

Well many, many people died there too. In fact, the only time in my life as a photojournalist that I intentionally destroyed negatives was in the midst of that disaster. Some things I just won’t be responsible for exposing people to.

Still, in the middle of that, I was walking down the street with my companions and a young boy came out and pulled us (politely) into what had once been his family’s front yard. His mother had seen us coming, and had put on tea. On a fire made of what I think had previously been furniture. She managed to find a sufficient number of mostly-unbroken cups and saucers for us to share in this simple ritual of hospitality. And we did.

As we sat talking over our tea, we learned that, somewhere in the pile of rubble behind us … rubble that a day previous had been her house … our hostess’s husband and baby girl lay buried.

Never in my life have I appreciated a cup of tea more than I did that day. And I pray I am never faced with another situation capable of topping it.

The Simple Power of Being Human

Human beings who choose to retain their humanity in the face of unspeakable adversity are the most incredible, resilient, powerful creatures anywhere.

How much more can we do if we choose to face the world as human beings filled with compassion when there’s not a disaster?

What can you do, right now, today, to embrace those around you as human beings of worth and innate goodness? If you do it now – if you learn this behavior in this moment, you will carry it forward into whatever the future may hold for us all.

5 Responses to Lessons I’m Learning from Disaster
  1. Hiro Boga
    January 20, 2010 | 10:14

    Thank you so much for this.

    I grew up in India in the 50’s and 60’s, in what was then a very low-tech culture. Even though I’ve lived in North America for the past forty years, I know in my bones that everyone’s survival depends on community and connection rather than on technology, possessions or privilege.

    It’s easy to forget this essential truth when our lives are running smoothly. Thank you for this beautifully moving reminder of where our strength and safety really lie.
    .-= Hiro Boga´s last blog ..The Gifts of Retreat, the Comforts of Home =-.

  2. giulietta
    January 20, 2010 | 10:26

    Hey TGM,

    Love your ending here. Really says it all. Why not show compassion to each other every day? Lend a helping hand before the person has to ask. Yes, we are all wonderful at showing it right after a disaster. Is there something scary or unsettling about being in compassion mode all the time? Good question to ponder.


    .-= giulietta´s last blog ..Have you convinced yourself of your worthiness? =-.

  3. steve
    January 20, 2010 | 11:41

    You bring up some very good points & I hope millions of people read this post. I spent some time homeless a little under 20 years ago; it taught me to appreciate all that we have. (I will always believe the pinnacle of civilization is hot, running water!) Even though it was such a long time ago, I try to remember every day. I find I often stop to help people just because I like the way it makes me feel. I just think it’s a shame that we have to go through some type of catastrophe or adversity before we appreciate all that life offers!! Maybe this post will help a few people remember to practice compassion without having to suffer unnecessarily.
    I haven’t been by your site lately and wanted to let you know I like the changes you made. Keep up the good work!

  4. Gina
    January 20, 2010 | 12:52

    Damn. Yes, you’ve articulated something I have thought about many, many times. How fragile our security is. How dependent we are on each other to keep our infrastructure intact, but not on each other for community. How easy it is to be a ‘good person’ when I have a roof over my head and my kids are easily fed every day.

    I, too, hope that we can be good, compassionate people in the face of disaster. And another funny thing, I was just thinking about yesterday, in response to a question about goals for my life. I couldn’t connect with wanting the usual ‘stuff’ – a good income, a nice house, etc. What I really want to work toward in life is being the kind of person that can be strong and useful and resourceful in the midst of catastrophe.

  5. Walter
    January 28, 2010 | 02:40

    With the increasing materialism of this world we have forgotten how vulnerable we really are. We have become accustomed to the conveniences of life that we forgot the needed skill of survival, and our vulnerability as human beings.

    I am thankful that I was born poor. I had experienced what its like to go hungry on a cold and rainy days. I know how it feels to be helpless, and being so I had no other choice but to endure my sufferings. It has made me strong, it had made me realize my weakness and vulnerability.

    Unless we experience what is like to suffer on the lowest level, we will see life differently. :-)

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