1961: The Disaster of Everyday Life

Pierre Mion -1964 Good Friday Earthquake

The distinction between “disaster” and “normal” conditions is implicit in most treatments of disaster behavior. The everyday, ongoing life of the society is usually equated with the “normal,” and those conditions that result from disaster are viewed as “abnormal” and pathological. However, in our haste to draw this distinction, we often conveniently overlook the many sources of stress, strain, conflict, and dissatisfaction that are imbedded in the nature of everyday life. From the imagined perspective of a subsequent disaster, this everyday life looks rather stable and serene, and we choose descriptive terrns such as “peaceful,” “organized,” and “equilibrated” to contrast it with the presumed disorder and chaos of disaster. The relative invisibility of everyday crises and the high visibility of disaster contributes heavily to the perpetuation of this contrast in human thought. During every single day in the United States, for example, over 4,000 people die from accidents and organic disease. Additional thousands, perhaps millions, are daily experiencing the pain and privation associated with the loss of intimates, with injury or illness, with interpersonal and intergroup conflicts, with social and material deprivation, or with failures to meet social expectations and personal aspirations. Yet these potential stress-producing events have a kind of “random incidence.” They are not sufficiently concentrated in time and place to threaten the basic integrity of the community or society as a whole. This fact, combined with the general tendency for people suffering stress to privatize or “hide” the effects of stress from public view, make the everyday crises of life much less visible to the observer than disasters. No peacetime or wartime disaster in American history has ever produced the aggregate amount of death, destruction, pain, and privation that is experienced in a single day of “normal” life in the United States, but this fact is rarely recognized except by insurance actuarial specialists and other keepers of vital statistics. The traditional contrast between “normal” and “disaster” almost always ignores or minimizes these recurrent and social effects. It also ignores stresses of everyday life and…a historically consistent and continually growing body of political and social analyses that points to the failure of modern societies to fulfill an individual’s basic human needs for community identity.

Charles Fritz: Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn From Disaster Studies (1961)

Pierre Mion: illustration of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake for National Geographic (source)

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