United States

Origins of Disaster

The word emergency comes from emerge, to rise out of, the opposite of merge, which comes from mergere, to be within or under a liquid, immersed, submerged. An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion. Catastrophe comes from the Greek kata, or down, and streiphen, or turning over. It means an upset of what is expected and was originally used to mean a plot twist. To emerge into the unexpected is not always terrible, though these words have evolved to imply ill fortune. The word disaster comes from the Latin compound of dis-, or away, without, and astro, star or planet; literally, without a star. It originally suggested misfortune due to astrologically generated trouble, as in the blues musician Albert King’s classic “Born Under a Bad Sign.”

In some of the disasters of the twentieth century—the big northeastern blackouts in 1965 and 2003, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast—the loss of electrical power meant that the light pollution blotting out the night sky vanished. In these disaster-struck cities, people suddenly found themselves under the canopy of stars still visible in small and remote places. On the warm night of August 15, 2003, the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view until the blackout that hit the Northeast late that afternoon. You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative, and local society. However beautiful the stars of a suddenly visible night sky, few nowadays could find their way by them. But the constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times. People know what to do in a disaster. The loss of power, the disaster in the modern sense, is an affliction, but the reappearance of these old heavens is its opposite. This is the paradise entered through hell.

—Rebecca Solnit
A Paradise Built in Hell
2009

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