Ten years ago this week, Americans watched their televisions aghast: It seemed that when New Orleans’s flood-control infrastructure failed, so too did its social order. For a week, the media offered stories of rampant, animalistic violence: of rapes, murders, looting, even of senseless assailants shooting at rescue helicopters.  In banner headlines on September 2, 2005, both The New York Times and The Washington Post paired New Orleanians’ “despair and lawlessness,” suggesting that one of these states necessarily led to the other.

The very next week, though, it emerged that the stories broadcast from New Orleans were, at best, exaggerations. Nobody could find the helicopter pilot who had supposedly been shot at. Violence on the ground, too, turned out to be much less common than imagined. “I kept hearing the word animal, and I didn’t see animals,” a woman named Denise Moore told the public-radio program This American Life about her time at the Superdome. Instead, she saw self-organized activities by “gangster guys” who broke into abandoned stores. Although they might have looked like looters, they were salvaging fresh clothes for those who needed them, “juice for the babies, water, beer for the older people, food, raincoats so that they could all be seen by each other.”

Meanwhile, it was sometimes the armed agents of the state—the very people who were supposed to keep the peace —who violently impeded rescue. When two black families tried to cross Danzinger Bridge to find medical and other supplies, they were met by New Orleans police officers toting guns. The cops on the bridge killed two unarmed men and injured four others; all told, eleven civilians were shot by police in Katrina’s aftermath. Police and soldiers broke up the self-organized solidarity built by people stuck in the city. Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two paramedics visiting New Orleans for a conference, recalled a group of people banding together to find food and shelter, only to be lied to by police, who knocked down their makeshift shelters and blocked their route out of the city. “We were hiding from possible criminal elements,” they wrote, “but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.”

Katrina produced an extreme situation, but the crisis was not unprecedented—and neither was the response. Disasters are times of disruption, trauma, even horror.  But they are also moments when people can—indeed must—come together to help each other as equals.

Nearly 90 years before New Orleans flooded, Frank Brinton was a schoolboy in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was just starting the day at elementary school one bright December morning in 1917 when a munitions ship bound for the French front blew up in the harbor down the hill. The explosion destroyed about a quarter of the city, killing about 2,000 people and maiming another 9,000. Frank went with his mother to the hospital, whose face and arms were injured, and then they went home to begin to repair the physical damage to their house. “Someone helped us to board up the windows with something and put blankets up, and this and that,” he recalled to historian Janet Kitz 68 years later. “But the lady next door, they lived in a small house. She had a room and she wanted us to come in there. So we went there and stayed over night.”

Like Denise Moore, the Brintons illustrate how people and communities respond to disaster. They received help from friends and neighbors in fixing their own house. Other Halifax survivors came together to build temporary shelters and shacks, or to share food and warmth. Those with still-inhabitable houses, like the Brintons’ neighbor, welcomed friends and family. These were ties of mutual aid. Frank Brinton’s recollection that their neighbor “wanted us to come” is telling, since it suggests that the neighbor got something—company, emotional support, perhaps their practical assistance closing up windows and cleaning up the house—from the Brintons. Surrounded by death, groups of neighbors, families, and friends offered not only warmth but literal conviviality. Choosing to stay with familiar people in familiar spaces also signified a refusal, or at least reluctance, to use the formal, hierarchical aid offered by the state.  Going to a friend’s house meant not going to an official shelter, with its rules and power relations and loss of privacy.

Such responses to disasters reveal an alternative vision of how to organize society: with ordinary people banding together to help rescue each other and rebuild their communities. When disasters strike, people with greater numbers of formal and informal connections fare better than those who are more isolated. This is true, and unsurprising, on an individual and familial level; people who can rely on friends and relatives for shelter and support will recover faster and more completely.

But it is true on a communal level, too. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg, writing about a heat wave in 1995, showed that old and isolated residents of a Chicago neighborhood with bustling streets, shops, and restaurants survived at a greater rate than similarly aged and isolated residents of an adjacent neighborhood whose streets were empty and looked “bombed out.” Even though the individuals were equally isolated, the social connections and institutions of their neighborhoods protected them.

Disasters serve as reminders that everyone is dependent on their friends and neighbors, and that those relationships need not be mediated by the state. Indeed, they are often better left unstructured by the state.

Yet that does not mean that government policy is unimportant. Daniel Aldrich, a political scientist, showed that in a series of Asian disasters, villages with stronger and more participatory local government rebuilt faster and better. Building infrastructure for tighter and more successful communities is the business of government, and it can be pursued through policies ranging from zoning to education to labor relations to transportation. Government should—as a matter of disaster preparedness—build communities that foster and encourage connection and solidarity. That means, as in Klinenberg’s Chicago, safe neighborhoods where people are unafraid of either criminals or the police, multi-purpose community centers, and bustling streets that encourage lingering with strangers. Most of all, it means countering the radical individualism that is dominant in contemporary society.

“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously said in 1987. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Thatcher’s individualist ethos now reigns so completely over our public discourse that even progressive responses to crises are increasingly couched in market-based terms. How to save water during a drought? Raise water prices. How to decrease carbon emissions? Cap total emissions and encourage companies to buy and sell the right to pollute. Through these programs based on markets and individualism, Thatcher’s slogan becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. These programs have the effect of naturalizing competition and inequality, rather than the solidarity needed to solve collective problems. And perhaps worse, they hide what disaster shows to be true—that there is indeed such a thing as society. When people need society the most, when they are at their most vulnerable, they see society at its strongest, whether in Frank Brinton’s neighborhood, the gangs Denise Moore observed, or the informal and temporary group Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky joined.

Disasters like Katrina—and the decade of disasters that has followed—prove that another world is possible. The immediate response to disaster is not individualist or state driven, but rather created by local people helping each other. That cooperation and solidarity, visible after disasters, can also make ordinary lives richer and more resilient.


This project was made possible with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.