What Harvey Said

Natural disasters and societal collapse are, despite their tragic aspect, unintended laboratories of how people behave under stress. Past crisis teaches us what people might do in future disruption. What might we deduce from Hurricane Harvey?

Lesson #1. People tend to band together against a common foe or problem. In the aftermath of destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, some media observers were surprised by the scale of self-help demonstrated by the civilians themselves. Many did not wait to be helped.  They helped themselves and their neighbors.

An entire armada of volunteers have taken to the flooded streets to help the people of Houston.

It's much appreciated by people in the city's fire service, like Cary Hunter whose radio doesn't stop when we catch up with him down the road.

Slate was even scandalized by the extent of it. Katy Waldman disapprovingly wrote that "it’s misleading to say that Houston showcases 'America at its best'. Natural disasters shouldn’t be used for the purpose of national mythmaking." But there was nothing shocking about it. An Obama-era Homeland Security publication even anticipated the inevitability of volunteerism. "Even in small- and medium-sized disasters," it noted,  "which the government is generally effective at managing, significant access and service gaps still exist. In large-scale disasters or catastrophes, government resources and capabilities can be overwhelmed."

Any 500-year disaster will overwhelm government agencies sized for the average situation. A meaningful response must depend on mobilizing private resources, which depends partly on community culture, because that is all you have when the lights go out and the streets are flooded.

Lesson #2 is probably that a crisis jolts the public back to what is truly important. We can focus on the unimportant in normal times. But floodwater in your living room is the ultimate burn-through. The reality signal is so strong the facts overpower the Narrative. This may explain why stories about Melania Trump's high heels and Keith Olbermann's latest insights into Donald's behavior generated less attention than otherwise. Like decoys ejected by ICBMs to confuse the defending observer, some Narratives will simply fall away in the pressing atmosphere of emergency events.

Lessons 1 and 2 have interesting implications for anyone anticipating the course of a hypothetical Second American Civil War. Such an event has been widely mooted, but nobody knows how it may play out. "In the 21st century, during an ongoing culture war between American conservatives and liberals over opposing cultural, moral, and religious ideals, Dennis Prager claimed that Americans are actually in the midst of the Second Civil War, albeit not necessarily violent."

One extrapolation from the Harvey experience is that coalitions formed in periods of abundance and normalcy will vanish or change drastically in times of physical crisis. For example, the Marxist coalition in Venezuela won the culture war during its heyday as an oil exporter. However the same coalition is disintegrating under the burn-through of hunger.