Friday, January 27, 2012

The Business of Staying Alive.2: An Interview with Nora Benson-Glaspey

Not only is Nora Benson-Glaspey a recent graduate of CORE (Citizens of Oakland Respond to Emergencies), she’s also a good friend of mine. Her storytelling skills are legendary, and it’s been a pleasure collaborating with her on “Nora Stories,” a comic featured in Runx Tales #2. Nora and I are now working on a new “Nora Stories,” one that started with a trip to the Winchester Mansion, and is beginning to turn into something bigger: a project where we hope to explore the role of the psychic in modern America.

Nora, who has lived in both pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans, currently attends San Francisco City College, where she’s pursuing a certificate in Trauma Prevention and Recovery. I talked to her recently about Hurricane Katrina, the transformative power of disaster, and the problems with getting to know your neighbors.

Matt Runkle: Do you want to start by talking a little about CORE? What it is, who organized it, how you found out about it, why you decided to pursue it?
Nora Benson-Glaspey: CORE was started in 1990, in response to the Loma Prieta earthquake, by the Fire Department’s Office of Emergency Services. Basically their goal is to train as many people as possible to be better equipped to deal with large-scale disasters, whether it be earthquakes, fires, chemical accidents, severe weather or, yup, terrorism, too. After Loma Prieta, first responders were swamped—there just wasn't enough people trained to help everyone who needed the help. Kinda scary to think about. I found out about the program from a friend who took it while I was living in New Orleans. I was bummed cuz I didn’t know of any equivalent where I was at. It just seemed smart.
CORE consists of five classes and one practice disaster, and happens over a six-week period. Topics include personal emergency preparedness, community organizing, disaster first aid and triage, search and rescue, damage assessment, and disaster psychology. The great thing is it's all free: CORE members, firemen and EMT's all volunteer their time to skill share. There are lots of reasons I decided to go—living in New Orleans post-Katrina, I heard enough stories about survival that if I had the chance to learn more about it, I’d better! I also like its focus on community—the idea is to get to know your neighbors before everything goes to hell.
MR: I think a lot about my neighbors, how in a city, you just kind of end up next to these people you have no history with, and what it would be like to weather a disaster with them. I’ve pretty much failed at fostering relationships with my neighbors here in the Bay. Do you feel like CORE gave you any kind of tools to create pre-disaster communities?
NBG: Yes and no. CORE can be used as a legitimate conversation starter. It looks official, it's registered with the city—that really appeals to certain folks. Some people, though, don't want anything to do with the government! CORE also really encourages people to start neighborhood watch groups, participate in Night Out Against Crime. I'm uneasy about all that—I don't want to forge vigilante relationships like that with my neighbors.
MR: You’ve talked a little bit about how CORE was this place where a funny mix of people collided (disastrous pun intended). Do you have any “Nora Stories”-style anecdotes you want to tell from your experience in CORE?
NBG: This one woman I spoke to admitted to me that she worked for FEMA, but she didn't want anyone to know—she whispered it in my ear after I told her I moved here from NOLA. At first I thought she was funny, but the further our conversation went I really kinda hated her. She told a group of us that she thought that people who stayed for hurricanes probably deserved to die. Not like I haven't heard that before.
Come to think of it, there were quite a few people who expressed defensive attitudes about who deserved help—mostly intended at their neighbors already singled out as undesirable. I got the impression it was because they didn't know them—or they were renters. Homeowners don't seem to like renters. Attitudes like this scare me more than anything: they're bred out of fear, are cruel, and can incite violence. I was subjected to similar attitudes in New Orleans, neighbors who thought I was squatting repeatedly called the police and threatened to steal my dog. I was shocked no one ever directly asked me about it. We were renting, so they couldn't get rid of us.
I unintentionally met one of my accusers at the bar; she was a wreck of a yuppie, hell-bent on squatters. She told me, “Don't worry you're on the ‘good list.’ People on the ‘bad list,’ if they don't comply, their bodies will end up in the Bayou. I have a gun.” It was really sad and strange. You see, she snapped. Before the storm, her personality and lifestyle were similar to a Berkeley lady—a middleclass, save-Tibet, Volvo-driving liberal. The stress of living through a catastrophic disaster has the capacity to completely transform us, in ways that we never would have expected—for better or worse.
MR: Can you talk a little more about Katrina? I think you had actually just moved back to California prior to the storm, right? What this was like, experiencing from afar this horrible thing happening to what had become your home?
NBG: Well, I started smoking again. Watching the news was maddening, listening to people talk about what they thought about the news reports was disturbing. Not knowing if my friends were safe was terrifying. I knew from my experience in New Orleans that the media was hyping up the violence. I'm not denying violence by any means, but the way they framed it was so freakin’ sensational. Highly disturbing. It set up dialogues I still hear today that echo the FEMA lady at CORE—“they” just weren't acting right, so “they” don't deserve help. According to a few looping FOX news reports, it almost seemed that New Orleans was full of baby-raping, gun-toting looters, and it was their fault response was slow. What the fuck ever! Years later the media has been called out for racializing looting pictures—white people were “scavenging” and blacks were “looting.” The whole conversation sidestepped the point that our country's infrastructure sucks, and that the government reacted inadequately. The media facilitated this insidious outlook on our nation’s largest disaster, in a way that condoned how our institutions were responding.
MR: Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay for Harper's a few years back, pre-Katrina, I believe, but I think it was actually published around the same time the storm happened [it later became the book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster]. It talked about how, contrary to the myth of the stampede and the panic, communities form in the wake of disasters. It’s become clear, it seems, that the real panic occurs within the media. I’m just curious about this idea of communities that are born out of disasters. I know the final phase of CORE involved a simulated emergency. Did you feel a stronger sense of community forming as you participated in this simulation? If so, is this something that will continue into the future?
NBG: I haven't read Solnit's essay but I have read a handful of studies which indicate that directly following a disaster it is more likely that people will help each other out; however, the longer communities go without basic resources the more likely violence is to increase. In the first few months after Katrina, I witnessed way more people coming together and helping each other out than not. There was this intense momentum to get the city back up and running again; rather than wait for the government, people started getting done what they could on their own. Over time, though, the strain created by lack of resources and aid to the city really took its toll on people.
To answer your question, yes and no. I made some connections with some really great people, none of whom lived in my neighborhood. As far as I can tell, there are not many CORE groups in my neighborhood. The simulated disaster is very chaotic, partly due to learning how to operate within the CORE framework, a hierarchical Incident Command system. People are split into groups to survey damage and find victims, and required to report back to an elected Incident Commander who then, either by foot or radio, reports back to the Emergency Operation Center—usually a local fire station. In our first exercise, information bottlenecked and all I felt was panic. The second exercise went smoother and people were working together. In one respect, it’s easy to see why response can take so long—there is so much paperwork! I hate paperwork, and at one point in my life I would’ve flipped off the whole concept of CORE because of its bureaucratic model, but now I feel more comfortable knowing their protocol so I can make more informed decisions.
MR: I’ve noticed there’s kind of a stigma to being prepared for emergencies, like, “What’s up with ole Doom n’ Gloom over there?” When I talk about putting together a survival kit, some people have been excited about it, while others act like maybe I’m being a little paranoid. Have you encountered this at all?
NBG: Yesss! Mostly, it's “Oh, well that will never happen here” mentality. It's too bad really, cuz there is no harm in having a few more of this and that around the house if something were to come up. I think there is this idea that when and if something happens, there will be people there to respond with supplies. And there will be, but depending on the magnitude of the disaster, it might take time. The government suggests having enough supplies to last for 5-7 days. That's a long time. I get it though, not wanting to think about it.
In one of my classes at City College, we were assigned the task of adding a supply to our disaster kit. Coincidentally, the Fukushima disaster happened that week, so it occurred to me maybe vitamins and iodide tablets wouldn’t be a bad add. Next class we shared what we got with one another, I was scared to mention what I bought and even almost lied. People were very upset, some didn’t even know there had been an earthquake in Japan, others thought I was foolish and some just thought I was ridiculous for thinking something like that could happen here. I never ended up getting my tablets due to a shortage caused by mass buying. My favorite was seeing a couple whisper-fight in Rainbow Grocery about what was better: pharmaceutical or natural iodine.
MR: Did CORE cover nuclear fall-out situations at all?
NBG: Mmmm . . . not so much, but it did come up. Basically their advice was “shelter in place,” which obviously didn't sit well with anyone in the room. There was definitely a quiet “we're gonna run like hell” vibe in the room. The firemen assured us that all nuclear facilities in the state of California were being checked, refitted and super safe. There was a handful of cynical comments and we moved on to the next subject.

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