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How the Apocalypse Will Bring Out the Best in People

After cataclysmic natural disasters, authorities tend to anticipate looting, violence, and a breakdown of social bonds. What they more often find, though, is a rugged spirit of solidarity.
A wounded child gets relief from fellow Haitians on January 12, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

A wounded child gets relief from fellow Haitians on January 12, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 

A gust of wind rocks the bird, and without warning it banks so hard that Pfc. Taveras thinks the rotor is going to smack the rising water. “Goddamn robot pilots fly like we aren’t meat back here!” someone shouts as the craft rights itself. She tries to laugh to calm her nerves. It isn’t the computer’s weirdly erratic flying that bothers her. Not even the horrifying view over the sergeant’s shoulder: swirling clouds and lights over the sinking Baltimore skyline, its mostly abandoned towers now listing visibly in the still-surging waves. In the short weeks since the feedback loop crisis began — as the president called it — the unthinkable has become disturbingly easy to accept.

No, she’s nervous about what they’re about to face on the ground. Phrases from the last briefing at Bragg ring in her head: “armed populace,” “widespread looting,” “probable total breakdown of law and order.” Having grown up not too far away from here, in northern Virginia, Taveras knows the stories about Baltimore’s infamous gangs. Recon says local law enforcement is AWOL. Even the old dogs of the 325th expect hell. “It’s the end of the fucking world,” Chan had said to her as they rolled out. “You never seen a movie? Don’t you know what that means?”

Just then the craft drops with a thud, and the platoon dismounts, just like they’ve drilled a million times — heads low, scopes on, rifles ready, mini-drones deployed. They fan out across the outcropping. Her squad’s orders are to reinforce the gates of the nearby university hospital, let hardship cases through, and keep out would-be looters or gangsters.

But when they reach the damp street leading to the hospital’s gates, they run into hundreds of people trying to reach the facility. Many are badly injured. Some seem to be carrying their dead. Others haul armfuls of belongings or wheel big suitcases behind them — who that stuff belongs to, she can’t say. There are a lot of children. She doesn’t see any chaos or panic. No one looks like a gangster. They just seem like normal people helping each other up the hill.

The squad is tense, gripping their rifles, unsure of what to do. “Hey sarge!” Taveras shouts as they near the hospital. “How do we know which ones are the looters?”

Predicting the future is a fool’s game. (And, for the record, no climate scientists I’ve ever talked to are predicting quite the fever dream I just made up — at least not any sober ones, yet.) In imagining a mass calamity or even an apocalypse, all we have to go on is the past. And the experience in most big disasters, from major earthquakes and hurricanes to disease pandemics to large-scale terrorist attacks, has been more like the scenario above than your standard disaster flick or The Walking Dead spinoff.

It’s true that authorities and elites often fear and prepare for mass chaos, expecting most people will either be helpless or violent. That’s why their first move is often to deploy the military or law enforcement . Sometimes those responders do help, whether it is a Coast Guard rescuing people from the waves, or soldiers reaching a remote area with needed food and supplies.

I lived through what could easily have been mistaken for the end of the world, the calamitous earthquake that struck outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010. In a matter of 40 seconds, whole neighborhoods and towns were wiped out, including my house with me inside.

But more often, these responders tend to find that survivors are already trying to manage their own response, and may be doing so fairly well. Civilians conditioned to think that a shotgun is a must-have accessory for the end of the world — or at least for regional calamities — might be surprised to learn that, during most crises, neighbors become far more eager to share than to pillage. (So long as vigilantes don’t go on preemptive self defense.) Despite what you may have heard, looting and violence are inherently uncommon in disaster scenarios.

“Dysfunctional and antisocial behaviors can occur … [and] one should not expect that crime will completely disappear,” Erik Auf Der Heide, a leading disaster expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has written. “The point is that antisocial behaviors are uncommon in typical disaster situations.” Authorities, Auf Der Heide says, may have to put aside their elaborate plans for disaster response and find ways to help the public with efforts civilians have already started on their own.

This seemingly paradoxical fact, that people tend to be unusually cooperative and levelheaded in the most dangerous situations of their lives, has been true over and over again through history, all over the world. After the great earthquake and fire of San Francisco in 1906, Jack London wrote:

There was no hysteria, no disorder. I passed Wednesday night in the path of the advancing flames, and in all those terrible hours I saw not one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who was in the slightest degree panic stricken…. Sometimes a whole family was harnessed to a carriage or delivery wagon that was weighted down with their possessions. Baby buggies, toy wagons, and go-carts were used as trucks, while every other person was dragging a trunk. Yet everybody was gracious. The most perfect courtesy obtained. Never in all San Francisco’s history, were her people so kind and courteous as on this night of terror.

When violence does occur after a disaster, it is often a result of authorities or elites overreacting, fixating on protecting property instead of lives, misunderstanding situations they encounter, or simply getting frustrated that the recovery is happening without them. “There is no real command and control. You can influence what goes on, but you can’t control it,” Auf Der Heide told me a few years back.

Some might point to news coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans as evidence that society tends to break down in a crisis. But as Trymaine Lee, who was part of the New York Times team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its Katrina coverage, has written, the violence tended to be on the part of the supposed peacekeeping authorities, not the public: “Today, a clearer picture is emerging, and it is an equally ugly one, including white vigilante violence, police killings, official cover-ups and a suffering population far more brutalized than many were willing to believe.”

Indeed, racism, or other differences between outside responders and survivors of disasters, often plays a big part in how behavior is perceived, and how responders — including armed ones — might react.

I’m biased by my own experiences, of course. I lived through what could easily have been mistaken for the end of the world, the calamitous earthquake that struck outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010. In a matter of 40 seconds, whole neighborhoods and towns were wiped out, including my house with me inside. An estimated 100,000 to 316,000 people were killed — a number roughly equal to 10 percent of the population of the Haitian capital at the time. (To put that in perspective, when The New Yorker freaked everyone out about the potential for a future Cascadia earthquake last year, it estimated a potential death toll one-tenth to one-twenty-fifth as large.)

In Haiti, despite the horror and fear, and the fact that resources were extremely limited even before the quake, the zone was a remarkably calm place. There were incidents of violence for sure, as there would have been at any time in a city of three million — though almost all the killings I saw or heard about throughout the zone were by police or neighborhood vigilantes acting in presumed self-defense, even after a mass escape from the national penitentiary. Far more common than all of that were stories of neighbors helping each other, rescuing each other from the rubble with bare hands and sharing their few remaining possessions to help one another get through the crisis. Most of the huge numbers of soldiers who were sent to respond, including 22,000 troops from the United States at the height, most of whom were carrying rifles, not first aid, found themselves with little to do.

Strange as it may seem, many survivors have what is almost a nostalgia for the days and weeks after what may have been the worst moments of their lives. “We remain ourselves for the most part, but freed to act on, most often, not the worst but the best within. The ruts and routines of ordinary life hide more beauty than brutality,” the author Rebecca Solnit has written in her study on disasters. It would be nice, really, if we could just skip the shock and the calamities and find that inner beauty now, working together, to keep the disasters of the future from happening.


Armageddon Awareness Day is Pacific Standard’s special report for Earth Day 2016, in which we confront our fears about the apocalypse while celebrating those things that make our planet worthwhile.