Crises, Communities and the Panic Myth

Are panics oversold by the societal elites? Many people alleged as much about the financial crisis last fall, thus taking issue with those arguing we needed to take action to avoid a societal breakdown. With that in mind, the following is from a Tom Vanderwell (author of the excellent Traffic) review of Rebecca Solnit’s new book (A Paradise Built in Hell) about disasters:.

A sociologist who set out to research panic in disasters found it was a “vanishingly rare phenomenon,” with cooperation and rational behavior the norm. More typically, panic comes from the top — hence the reaction of officials during the Three Mile Island evacuation: “They’re afraid people are going to panic,” another disaster scholar notes, “so they hold the information close to the vest about how much trouble the reactor is in,” putting the public in greater danger. A weightier charge by the disaster sociologists, one echoed by Solnit, is that “elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.” Thus, Solnit argues, the official response in 1906 San Francisco — where the subsequent fire caused more damage than the quake — kept volunteers “who might have supplied the power to fight the fire by hand” away, relying instead on “reckless technological tactics.” In the aftermath of Katrina, there were myriad accounts of paramedics being kept from delivering necessary medical care in various parts of the city because of false reports of violence. Whether this was elites defending against challenges to their legitimacy or simple incompetence is unclear; as Solnit observes, the “monolith of the state” is actually a collection of agencies whose coordination may be illusory.


Tom Vanderbilt, “Up From Calamity,” The New York Times, September 6, 2009, sec. Books / Sunday Book Review,

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking Adult, 2009).