The Carnivalesque Disaster– Reflections on the Colorado Flood

(We first published this on October 2, 2013. We are republishing it in honor of the 1st anniversary of the Colorado Flood.- Jinx Davis, Millennium Group)

Back in my acting days I reveled in performing Ruth Draper’s work. Ms. Draper was the queen of one person theatre and the inspiration for actresses such as Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin. In 1920 in Cambridge, England, Draper introduced “In a Railway Station on the Western Plains”, a piece about a woman working the late shift at a small town railroad station going about her ordinary duties when a call comes through that a train has crashed, resulting in many casualties. She sets up the station as a makeshift emergency ward and masterfully orchestrates dozens of invisible characters in a high drama episode filled with death, urgency, shock and unmistakable human goodness. Decades later, in 1949, Jack Kerouac wrote similarly in his journals about a long night bus ride through North Dakota, when snow and ice brought dangerous havoc to a barren world and “crews of eager young men” selflessly worked through the “attritive, swirling, artic-like night” helping strangers of whom they had “no need”. Both artists were exploring the nature of human behavior in crisis.There have been many disasters in the world in the last few weeks. Mexico was pummeled by a double onslaught of storms that killed well over a hundred and left 200,000 homeless; Asia faced Typhoon Usagi and Typhoon Trami; and intense rains falling on parched earth caused deadly flash floods in Colorado.

We bore witness to the Colorado disaster which began on September 12th and I felt like I was once again performing
Ruth Draper’s character “In a Railway Station on the Western Plains”. The question always on my mind: how will we behave when life is suspended and powerful forces bring suffering, deprivation and obliteration to the illusion of our normalcy?

Hollywood and the news media pound us with images of the panic myth: crazed people running amok, vicious and primal. Naysayers exaggerate or manufacture lies to espouse their fear mongering and egotistic community members prance around like peacocks criticizing officials and emergency teams- all parties deeply invested in a meta-narrative that assumes disaster will lead to panic in the streets and every-man-for-himself struggles. This is not the truth and studies prove otherwise. Regardless of where the crisis occurs in the world, we look out for each other.

Colorado’s flooding was intimate and intense. Our Estes Park home was a rare anomaly since both our phones and internet worked and I was able to connect with the outside world while participating in the evacuations and emergency assistance. There was spontaneous order and calm in the chaos and the majority of us simply set about doing whatever we could to help…and this is how it has always been throughout history.

Millennium Group pitched in. Andy Pizer helped rescue equipment from buildings high in raging waters, ran cables on higher ground, dug out bobcats and cars stuck in mucky sludge, and relocated clients to higher ground. Loveland Fire Rescue photographer Justin King (the talented networker who tackles our big projects) filmed crumbling highways and rescues and I became the help line for the Chinese university students worrying about how they would get home. We managed to get them all safely evacuated with the assistance of Fred Hess, a steadfast, strong and loving shuttle bus driver who befriended and watched out for them. We did dozens of loads of laundry for those that needed dry clothing; and prepared meals and beds for those requiring a good night’s sleep.

Meanwhile officials followed the crisis administration book to perfection; the police and National Guard politely directed us away from dangerous buildings and roads; volunteers lined up to assist in searches and cleanup; restaurants cooked for the Red Cross center; couples who lost literally everything bought groceries for strangers; and donations of food and bedding were passed quietly from one neighborhood to another. Rational cooperation was the modus operandi and our disaster showed the face of a beloved community. We gathered in evenings for beer- and laughter released us from worries and aching muscles. We were satisfied with ourselves. Satisfied with our labor, our energy and how efficiently we took control by our own incentive.
For a brief moment in time the Utopian dream of social justice hung in the mountain air.

Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and Their Consequences In Hurricane Katrina put it this way, “panic is not a problem in disasters; that rather than helplessly awaiting outside aid, members of the public behave proactively and pro-socially to assist one another; that community residents themselves perform many critical disaster tasks, such as searching for and rescuing victims; and that both social cohesiveness and informal mechanisms of social control increase during disasters, resulting in a lower incidence of deviant behavior.” People become their best selves when crisis strikes.

I was in Ningbo, China when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August, 2005. I remember sitting on my son’s couch, head in my hands and stomach churning as I watched televised news report massive lawlessness, cannibalism and violent mobs marauding the streets. My guts knew that these exaggerated accounts served to obscure the altruism in action and were circulated by those invested in political agendas and racial fantasies. Years of investigative journalism proved them as such. They didn’t happen. Yes, there was looting and yes, humans can behave atrociously. But the media’s willingness to report rumors contributed to a kind of cultural wreckage that perpetuated injustice. In New Orleans, investigations uncovered that most of the looting and civil unrest in the area were attributed to the lack of essential needs. For example, citizens took water trucks from the local water plant and drove them around to give out water. Looters in the aftermath saw an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for attacking the party in power while it was distracted, and their actions followed the historical pattern in areas where social strife resulting from severe inequality is an issue impacting everyday life.

David Carr from the New York Times wrote in the 2005 article “More Horrible Than Truth: News Reports” that “many instances in the lurid libretto of widespread murder, carjacking, and assaults that filled the airwaves and newspapers have yet to be established or proved, as far as anyone can determine. And many of the urban legends that sprang up – the systematic assault of children, the slitting of a 7-year-old’s throat – seem to be just that…With the grid down and accurate information at a premium, a game of toxic telephone supplanted logic.” The initial reports of mass chaos, particularly in stories about the Superdome, were later found to false. The New Orleans crimes unit investigated every atrocity and found only two verifiable incidents, both of assault. The department head told reporters, “I think it was urban myth. Any time you put 25,000 people under one roof, with no running water, no electricity and no information, stories get told.” Government expected hundreds of dead to be found in the Superdome, but instead found only 6 dead (of which there were four natural deaths, one drug overdose and one suicide).

I am thinking about Katrina now because our momentary Colorado Utopia is already fading. Until the highways are rebuilt, I am living in our office and make the 3- 4 hour trek to our home only on weekends. On the streets and in the office I experience firsthand the shadow side of humanity. Visitors, customers and salesmen cry out: Martial law is coming to Colorado! Looters are everywhere! One man handed me a print out from a local blog with the screaming headline: Colorado in 72 hour lockdown-Massive Flooding-Panic-Looting-Reports of Cannibalism. Ah….I Google the news and can find only a few rare incidents of looting in our state- all done by locals and neighbors known by the victims. No Martial Law. No mass panic. No cannibalism. Xenophobic comments are made, with the assumption that I am in full agreement with their ignorant beliefs. Zealous fundamentalists tell me that the disaster is God’s retaliation for Colorado legalizing marijuana. Conspiracy theorists announce that the floods were man-made by the government- a government that can control the weather, and even create earthquakes. Others make a small fortune selling guns and ammunition, using fear, frustration and anger as advertising points.

And then there are those who act as if nothing has happened at all: those who offer bewildered faces when asked if they are all right and if their friends and families are intact. Or those, whose small and narcissistic minds angrily demand refunds from mountain lodges and vacation rentals, as if the proprietors themselves are to be blamed for blotched mountain visits and do not deserve deep empathy.

For me, living through a disaster reminds me of the times we played Carnival ‘mas’ in Trinidad, West Indies. Carnival was created when West African slaves parodied their French owners known for their extravagant costumes balls. Forbidden to partake in these festivities, slaves lampooned their masters, and once set free from forced labor, Carnival became a platform for fanciful costumes and astute calypso lyrics mocking their former masters and political leaders. Trinidad is a nation deeply riddled with racial tension between East Indian, African and Chinese descendants from slave and indentured slave colonial history. Here, too, the media is partly to blame for the segregation amongst races and culture and has failed to reflect the whole of Trinidad Tobago society. Yet, for a few days each Lent, Trinidadians of all backgrounds dance, sing, carouse and wildly celebrate together as if “All ah we is one:” Ironically, the second the streets are cleaned from the cathartic party the separation and mistrust returns in full glory.

Disaster is carnivalesque, a term coined by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, which refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. In disaster, ordinary citizens do extraordinary things and people interact with each other without judgment, prejudice, hatred or selfishness. We subvert the powers that be by helping ourselves and each other. We stretch and our spirits soar: we share intimately and our boundaries become porous.

A call comes in from a beleaguered business client drastically affected by the flooding. They are hanging in, she tells me, but it would be easier if people were nicer…We lower our voices and conclude that 50% of the population just doesn’t get it.

An email comes in from friends, Sandra and Terry Borger, who lost their home in the floods. The photos show mud and debris filling the home up to the ceiling, a framed piece of art sticking its corner out of the sludge, as if it is seizing its last breath. I think of my dear friends. I think of the unimaginable that they must now imagine.

Humans are complex. The carnival will continue.