I apologize in advance for this post. It wasn’t on my planned list of topics, but was stuck in my head for the last 24 hours since I went to a thought-provoking lecture by Sebastian Junger. I also admit that I am definitely a wimp, so I’m not accusing anyone of anything that I am not guilty of myself.

Hiking down a rock wall in Afghanistan. Photo by The U.S. Army

Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger is a journalist known for reporting on the Afghanistan war, and his Oscar nominated film Restrepo (www.sebastianjunger.com)    He spoke last night at Willamette University about his experiences, and more importantly, the experiences of the soldiers he embedded with. Surprisingly, the thing that struck me was the physical deprivations that soldiers suffer. I already accept (although hate) the horrible exposure to combat and death that goes with being a soldier, but I hadn’t thought much about the daily difficulties of existence. Mr. Junger gave many examples, including descriptions of soldiers spending a month in camp without electricity, nothing but cold rations, and minimal water. They never wash or change their clothes. Another example was hiking for miles with a 120-140 pound pack in 5 degree weather, and so little water that they drank fluid from the IV bags they carry to save their lives if injured. I asked Mr. Junger afterwards what the soldiers felt about these conditions, and he said “they’re 19-year-old guys – it’s not a big deal to them.”

American Response to Disaster

I find myself comparing this attitude to stories in the news after American disasters. Our citizens are upset if power companies do not restore power within a few days, if they have to wait in line for gas or water and carry it by hand, or a damaged road or bridge blocks their normal quick path of travel. Travelers in a disaster even complain if hotels don’t offer the level of service they paid for, and some think the hotel should reimburse them (check out TripAdvisor if you don’t believe me). We ask American soldiers to put up with far worse conditions for months, and yet we will not tolerate them for even a few days after a disaster without believing our government is failing us.

Of course, it’s not just soldiers that have horrible living conditions. Although we prefer to forget, in Haiti there were 1,000,000 people homeless after the earthquake, and there are still over 400,000 living in camps currently. There are similar refugee camps throughout the world with people living in a few feet of space under a tarp, and huge lines for minimal amounts of food and water. Of course, these are third world countries, and unfortunately, it is easy for Americans to think of them as different. We give money but we could never be expected to tolerate even a fraction of the deprivation they experience.

Refugees from 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Photo by Oxfam Italia.

My Personal Wimpiness

I said I am just as guilty. I haven’t been in a disaster for a while, but a recent simple experience pointed out my double standard. My husband and I were in Portland (at a disaster preparedness conference, to further the irony). When we got in the car at 5:30, it wouldn’t start and required towing. Now, I had my 3 day emergency car kit, and I was even at a hotel. Did I make do and spend the night there? Sadly, no. My kit doesn’t include make-up and a change of clothes, so rather than be seen at the conference the next day with the same clothes and a plain face, I instead made my son drive 90 minutes from Salem to bring us home. Just so I would look good. Yuch!

Forgo Wimpiness

Will I relax my standards after a disaster? I hope so (although I might include make-up in my go-bag!). The truth is that a disaster is a DISASTER. Life will not be the same afterwards. We will be deprived of many things that we usually consider essential, but are really not. Power is not essential. Travel is not essential. Clean clothes are not essential. Phones are not essential. Even washing is not essential. Shelter, warmth, food, water, and medical attention (if you really need it, not because you have a sinus infection) are really the only things that are essential. If you have those, then the government is meeting its obligations – everything else is icing on the cake.

So decide now to forgo wimpiness if caught in a disaster. Americans should not demand to get off easier after disaster than the rest of the world, although we usually do. Obviously, the better you prepare in advance, the more you have to help you get through the experience. But disasters have that name for a reason. Concentrate on the basics of survival, and on the safety of your loved ones, and be glad for anything else you get.

Stay safe,


New Yorkers wait for gas after Superstorm Sandy. Photo by Brian Kingsley.

  1. Monika Lenz says:

    Growing up in a family who lived through WWII on the “other side” and had their farms confiscated, spent years in Siberian prison camps, walked hundreds of miles to escape adversity, crawled under barbed wire at borders while being shot at, emigrated with $100 in their pockets to a land where they could not speak the language, I am always amazed at how “soft” American’s are. We live in overpopulated cities (I don’t but most do) where if essential supplies are cut off people are simply unable to cope. Dependency on every basic necessity being brought to our door is a frightening way to live and we don’t, for the most part, even realize we are in this position!

    • disasterdoc says:

      I really like the movement toward urban gardening and other urban resiliency projects for this reason (although it still can’t possibly meet everyone’s needs!). Portland, Oregon is working very hard on this concept. It clearly takes a different approach to emergency planning to meet urban needs. On the scale of possible urban disasters, Hurricane Sandy was actually fairly small. I can’t imagine how they would cope with a larger event!

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