This week we find the new release by Jacob A. C. Remes, lately seen writing on Hurricane Katrina for The Atlantic. Remes’s book Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era looks at how regular people rose from the wreckage of disaster to aid and their neighbors while government and military experts, among others, challenged these traditional methods with emergency powers and “expertise.”
The Salem Fire of 1914 and the Halifax Explosion of 1917 remain defining events in the histories of those cities. Remes explores patterns and traditions of self-help, informal order, and solidarity and details how people adapted these traditions when necessary. As he shows, these methods—though often quick and effective—remained illegible to Progressive Era reformers. Indeed, the soldiers, social workers, and others wielding extraordinary emergency powers imagined a fractured social landscape that did not exist.
Remes draws on his scholarship for Disaster Citizenship in his Atlantic article:
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.
Early praise for Disaster Citizenship includes “excellent study a model of transnational history,” “a rich, original, and sensitive account,” and “meticulously researched, gripping, and important.” As Remes’ recent magazine work show, Disaster Citizenship offers important lessons for today as well as an engaging history of the time that birthed many of our present-day attitudes.