When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, Judith Rodriguez was asleep in her home. Or rather, she was trying to sleep, but the sounds of the deadly storm blowing over the island woke her up.
“That whistle was the ugliest I’ve heard in my life,” Rodriguez said. “A whistle that was never silent. It was endless. … I thought that my house was in good condition, at least I thought that. And as I woke up at 2:30am, I felt scared. The first scare was when the back door went flying off — a metal door in the kitchen.”
Like much of the island, the town of Cayey, where Rodriguez lives, was plunged into darkness for months, as winds reaching 175 mph destroyed power lines and tore roofs off houses. Already in the midst of a crippling debt crisis, and with no immediate relief in sight, communities like Cayey had to make due with the few resources they had.
“In my house I had a lot of plates,” Rodriguez says. “What if I donate my plates that are laying in a corner in my home?” She wasn’t the only one with that idea. In towns and cities all over the island, from Cayey to Caguas and Humacao to Las Marias, something began to stir. Plate donations grew into community kitchens which grew into community centers which grew into a movement. With its furiously whistling winds, Hurricane Maria had awakened something in the Puerto Rican people, something that storms, fires, earthquakes — and all manner of disasters and catastrophes — have awakened in communities all around the world.
“Human beings are a community. If we are in China, in Puerto Rico, in Japan, wherever,” says Rodriguez. “We are a community — we have to help each other here in Puerto Rico, which I call the boat. If this boat sinks, we all sink. I don’t sink alone, we all sink.”
In 2007, Naomi Klein presented her thesis of disaster capitalism to the world in her groundbreaking book, “The Shock Doctrine.” Klein’s ideas seemed to perfectly explain much of what was — and still is — taking place globally. The idea is fairly simple: Create market opportunities out of disasters. Klein sketched a picture of how powerful entities use political and economic crises to weaken the public sphere and strengthen the interests of private capital. The “shock” that comes after catastrophes presents the perfect opportunity for powerful interests to take advantage of disoriented communities with the hope of turning a profit.
Klein’s thesis has been helpful in contextualizing much of what we see happening around us, from the dismantling of the public school system in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina to the privatization of infrastructure in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria. But when we look closer, we see that the “disaster capitalist” isn’t the only character to emerge out of crisis situations. In these tumultuous times it is crucial that we remember disaster capitalism is only part of the story. There is another story taking place; one based on altruism, solidarity, and social responsibility — and when we look closely, we can see it happening all around us. This is the story of disaster collectivism.
There are innumerable instances where storms have swept in a flood of mutualism, where wildfires have sown the seeds of solidarity, and where earthquakes have strengthened collective values and brought communities closer together. We see these explosions of generosity quite often. It happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when an armada of boats that comprised the volunteer-run Cajun Navy descended upon waterlogged neighborhoods to rescue stranded survivors. We saw it again, on a smaller-scale, in November 2017, when dozens of New Yorkers spontaneously rushed in to help dig out trapped survivors from a collapsed scaffolding structure in Lower Manhattan.
Why do people do this? Why do we see such heroic acts of self-sacrifice and self-endangerment on such a regular basis? It certainly doesn’t seem to align with the story about humanity that dominates many mainstream narratives. This story describes humanity as Homo economicus, a species characterized by selfishness and competition.
“When a disaster strikes, like the flooding in Houston [after Hurricane Harvey], for example, you see everyday people pouring out all this generosity and solidarity,” says Christian Parenti, associate professor of economics at John Jay College in New York City. “Suddenly the idea that everything should have a price on it, and the idea that selfishness and competition are good, all that just gets parked. Suddenly, everyone is celebrating cooperation, solidarity, bravery, sacrifice, and generosity.”
This idea is reinforced by author Rebecca Solnit in her landmark book, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” in which she explains that, “in the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones.”
We witnessed this recently in the aftermath of the Fuego Volcano eruption in Guatemala in June. In the face of inadequate government response, everyday people came together to take care of each other’s needs. On the night of the eruption, a church in a nearby town “immediately started sounding its bells at an odd time, calling the community to come out to the church where they started collecting materials, food and clothes, and other things,” says Walter Little, an anthropologist based out of the University at Albany at the State University of New York, who was on the ground during the crisis.
Most people won’t think twice when they hear the bells ring, Solnit says: “Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this.”
After the Storm
But what is it about disasters specifically that inspire such acts of altruism? There is a thesis put forth by writers like Solnit, Parenti, and others, that has arisen around this question. It goes a little something like this: We’ve come to accept Homo economicus as the truth, perhaps not always consciously, but it haunts our dreams, our imagination. It confines our sense of possibility and imposes boundaries as arbitrary as those that carve up ecosystems and communities into nation-states. But, as we’ve seen, artificial borders cannot contain the flow of flora, fauna, and human generosity.
When a firestorm blazed through the northern Californian city of Santa Rosa in October 2017, the community came together to form a fund designed specifically for the undocumented community. Undocufund, as it became known, stood in direct opposition to the divide-and-conquer rhetoric that has been a staple of the contemporary political climate.
“[In] the beginning we didn’t know if we’d raise $50,000 or $100,000,” Omar Medina, the director of Undocufund, says. “Never did we expect the $6 million we’ve raised so far. But the generosity of people as the disasters were happening, as the fires kept going. … and [as] people learned about us — they sympathized with the need. They understand the need based on everything that we’ve experienced lately on a national level as it relates to the undocumented community.”
This kind of human kindness — often hemmed in by the myth of homo economicus perpetuated by mainstream institutions — is bursting at the seams, just waiting for a chance to emerge. Could it be that the collapse of normality that arises during and after calamity awakens something deep within us? Perhaps these moments open up a space, however briefly, for new forms of civic engagement and public life. But when it comes to the every day grind, those chances seem few and far between.
But there’s a deep need to connect. According to research published in the journal American Sociological Review, 25 percent of Americans report not having close friends or confidants. We are also seeing the number of individuals living alone rise sharply in recent years. As we become more and more isolated and atomized in everyday life, our craving for connection only increases. “Our species is a group species,” Parenti says. “There’s something deep and quite innate in us as a species to stick together.”
We saw this innate drive towards connection occur in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City, New York, on Oct. 29, 2012, killing 53 people and leading to $32 billion dollars in damage citywide. Places like the Rockaways, an exposed peninsula within the borough of Queens on Long Island, were hit especially hard. Yet even in a megacity like New York, often viewed as uniquely disconnected and unneighborly, disaster collectivism emerged in full force.
One major example of this kind of collective approach was the effort put forth by Occupy Sandy, a grassroots relief network that grew out of the networks and strategies developed by Occupy Wall Street. Filling in a vacuum left by the official response, Occupy Sandy volunteers worked in partnership with local community organizations and activist networks. Their grassroots efforts focused on empowering poor and working class communities and were based on mutual aid rather than charity. With nearly 60,000 volunteers at its height, its own Amazon relief registry, legal team, medical team, prescription drug deliveries, and meal deliveries everyday, it was able to make a significant impact in the days and weeks following the disaster.
Sal Lopizzo, a longtime resident of New York City, became involved with the Occupy Sandy recovery effort when a group of volunteers showed up at his flooded nonprofit and asked if they could convert it into a recovery hub. “People just showed up, gutted the office out, got everything out into the street,” Lopizzo says. “We started putting up tables, trucks just started showing up with supplies. Any supply you could think of. If you walked into Home Depot or into a Target store, it was in this office.”
Lopizzo’s building was just one of many hubs that emerged in the days and weeks after the Superstorm hit. It was fed by a dozen or more distribution hubs, which were located in areas that were not as heavily affected.
“There were churches in Brooklyn that were gathering supplies to put on vans and trucks and bringing them in here,” he says. “One time I saw a Greek Orthodox priest pull up in a minivan with a bunch of kids, and they had about one hundred pizzas. And he just showed up here, you know. I was like, ‘Holy mackerel’ — it was amazing.”
Lorena Giron, a Rockaways resident who was also part of the broader grassroots relief effort that emerged after Sandy, was similarly moved by what she saw.
“Just immediately seeing neighbors being worried about their next-door neighbors was something that really touched me, as well as the quick mobilization of the church and the willingness to bring in people into the church and then provide resources — whatever kind of help would be available,” Giron says. “Just seeing that and just the feeling of the fact that we were all watching over one another.”
Recovery hubs popped up all over the city, including at the Arverne Pilgrim Church, just a few miles from where Lopizzo’s converted nonprofit was located. Pastor Dennis Loncke, the owner of the church, explained how Hurricane Sandy created a space for the community to come together in a way that it hadn’t before.
“The storm really did unite in breaking some of the barriers down,” Loncke says. “Because most of us was living on opinion. We assumed that the other person had the grass greener on the other side, so they had no need for this one, and that had no need for the other one. But when the storm came everybody’s opinion just disappeared. We recognized that there are lots of people that had all different types of issues after the storm, and it was not just only the financial loss, or the the property loss. It awakened the community to what is going on inside the midst of us — what we have as neighbors.”
Once the door to another world is opened, it’s often difficult to close it. There are many instances of how the bonds and collective vision that are formed during the immediate aftermath of disasters have grown into broader projects that stretch far beyond immediate disaster relief.
For example, the focus around community empowerment encouraged by the Occupy Sandy relief efforts and organizations like The Working World, also based in New York City, inspired folks like Giron to help organize what has now become a worker cooperative incubation program that has helped to launch four cooperatives in New York City.
“This was very important and very exciting because the Rockaways and Far Rockaways [were] a very poor area, even before the storm,” Giron says. “The idea of a different way to promote work and promote employment [is] exciting. So my life, I feel it’s changed. The important thing for me has been this ability to help my community and to work with my community members.”
Another clear illustration of how grassroots disaster relief can lead to larger initiatives comes out of Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria, where what started in the town of Caguas as a volunteer-run community kitchen soon transformed into an island-wide network of community centers, known as Mutual Aid Centers. Today, these centers provide more than just meals — they offer all sorts of services related to art, education, and therapy.
Giovanni Roberto, one of the founding members of the original Mutual Aid Center in Caguas, helps organize weekly acupuncture clinics for community members.
“This [clinic] happens every Tuesday,” Roberto says. “We work with acupuncture in the ear. We work with stress and post-traumatic syndrome, addictions, and other related issues — health issues,” adding that all services are provided for free.
The chaos wrought by Hurricane Maria went even further than the loss of life, injury, and property destruction — the storm had an impact on the Puerto Rican psyche which has had lasting and dire consequences. There are growing reports of a mental health crisis quietly unfolding on the island. It’s turning into a disaster of its own, especially since Puerto Rico’s already struggling healthcare system was weakened after the storm, leaving adequate healthcare inaccessible to many. But as Roberto’s work with the Mutual Aid Centers demonstrates, communities are coming together to tackle this epidemic in their own way. Roberto recounted the story of one of the regular volunteers at the center where he works who had been dealing with depression and post-disaster trauma.
“The first day she came here she was almost crying, you know, in a really stressful way,” Roberto says. “Since that day, she has never missed a single day of volunteer work. She has changed. She’s not crying anymore. She’s sleeping better. She says today to me that when she came here she feels that she’s in paradise.”
As Omar Reyes, another organizer at a different Mutual Aid Center in the remote town of Las Marias, says “we started our center as a community kitchen because that was what was going on in an urgent moment. People needed to eat. But once the problem changed the instrument changed too. It transformed. And now we have a center for the development of education, recreation, cultural skills, and opportunities.”
The same sentiment was expressed by Astrid Cruz Negrón, an organizer at the Mutual Aid Center in the town of Utuado. “The Mutual Aid Center definitely does not want to stay in the emergency mindset of surviving Maria,” she says. “We want everything we do to build towards a new world, a new more just, more equal society.”
The first step to building a more just world might be guaranteeing that communities have the power to keep the lights on, but the ultimate goal is to ensure that communities have the power to begin growing a broad movement with the strength to make serious demands on a government that has largely abandoned them. But until then, they’re taking things into their own hands.
The instances of disaster collectivism outlined here did not happen in a vacuum. They occur oftentimes in an ongoing tension with the forces of disaster capitalism. New York City was a battleground of opposing forces for years after Sandy hit, as communities and power brokers fought for very different types of recovery. The Mutual Aid Centers in Puerto Rico are up against a set of forces — the United States government, the Puerto Rican government, and corporate interests — whose power leaves the future of their project in the balance.
In the best case scenario, disaster collectivism occurs in conjunction with government support, at the local, state, and national levels, for small and large-scale intervention that is essential in relief and reconstruction. The challenge, however, is that as the decisions driving policies fall more and more into the hands of a powerful few, official disaster response will, without social and political intervention, likely reflect preexisting stratification often shaped along race and class lines.
Yet hope lies in the vast repository of history documenting that in times of disasters, communities take care of each other and often form new solidarities that can lead to political engagement. Recovery hubs emerge spontaneously. Religious institutions step in to help. Improvised kitchens emerge, preparing not just meals, but a new vision of public life.
In these tumultuous and divisive times, amidst both the acute and chronic crises our society faces, we see glimmers of hope — a possibility for us to come together to take care of the most vulnerable within our communities.
“It’s trying to create solidarity in the midst of chaos,” Davin Cardenas, an organizer at Undocufund, says. “Trying to create a semblance of purpose in the midst of not knowing exactly what’s happening.” After the fires in California, “everybody had a feeling of like, ‘oh my gosh, what do I do? I’m not doing enough. How am I serving the people?’ You know, we’ve heard that so many times over. [Undocufund] gave people a sense of purpose. And that sense of purpose is critical in the midst of chaos — people’s instinct is to demonstrate love, to demonstrate care, and to demonstrate solidarity.”
With an uncertain future ahead marked by deepening divisions and climate change, the many examples of collective relief and recovery efforts can serve as a blueprint for how to move forward and rebuild with a radical resilience. They can also provide a glimpse of another world, one marked by empowered communities filled with more connection, purpose, and meaning.
Paige Ruane, Juan C. Dávila, and Ninna Gaensler-Debs contributed research and reporting for this piece. Some of the interviews were done in Spanish and have been translated to English. This story is part of a series on disaster collectivism, which includes a podcast — The Respons — exploring how communities respond to crises, both in their immediate aftermath and over a period of months and years. For more information about the series or to listen to the podcast visit: www.theresponsepodcast.org
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Header image by Kane Lynch.