Overcoming Disaster

Suzette Marquette
September 01, 1993

"Fear, that's what it is. Afraid. You're sitting at the edge of your seat. It's like we're in their hands. It's just like we're being manipulated by a couple of stacks." —survivor of TMI

Life is never the same after a technological disaster. You don't feel safe, wondering if there will be another "accident." You don't let your children play outdoors. Often it is impossible to move away because you can't sell your house. You are angry and frightened.

What do you do?

According to Stephen Couch, associate professor of sociology at Penn State Schuylkill Campus, and Steve Kroll-Smith, formerly an associate professor of sociology at Penn State Hazleton Campus, a long-term technological disaster traps a community in a chronic state of threat. While on the surface nothing has changed, "the water is no longer safe to drink; the air is poisoned; the ground is contaminated."

When confronted with these fears, people need to choose how to respond, whether they will just "learn to live with the existing situation" or try to reduce the threat. Communities at Risk: Collective Responses to Technological Hazards, a series of essays edited by Couch and Kroll-Smith, examines the different sorts—and results—of such reactions.

While natural disasters, such as hurricanes, are seen as "Acts of God," there is a common belief that technology, because it is regulated, can be controlled; accidents can be prevented. When disaster does strike, the well-being and sense of security within the community crumbles. Distrust and paranoia strike not only the affected neighborhood, but those on the outside of the danger zones. Residents experience high stress levels, not for months, but for years. They blame companies for allowing the disaster to happen; then they blame themselves for not being able to see it coming. This blame, particularly self-blame, gives victims a sense of control over the situation.

That need for control, coupled with powerful emotions, can work to heal a community—or at least bring about a sense of justice. With a mine fire burning underneath them, residents of Centralia, PA created no less than seven activist groups. Their purposes were different—to save the close-knit coal town or to encourage a government buy-out—but their activism became a way to deal with the problem destroying their town and their lives. And it was a community activist group that brought national media attention to the Love Canal disaster. In the beginning, their fight focused on saving property values, but as contamination seeped in, the Love Canal Homeowners Association expanded their list of concerns to include marital, family, and health problems. While change didn't happen overnight, the association's major demands were met: the neighborhood was declared uninhabitable and the government picked up the relocation expenses.

"Groups are organized around something more than the mere perception of risk," Couch and Kroll-Smith write. "Their membership must share similar ideas about threat, accountability, and the necessity for action."

Response to a technological disaster doesn't always involve activism or politicking. One community put its disaster on stage.

In June of 1976, the St. Lawrence River was contaminated by an oil slick that threatened over 100 miles of shoreline and two countries. Communities that depended on the river for both their livelihoods and recreation were devastated. People were angry at the government for its slow response to the clean-up efforts and at the shipping industry for its negligence in enforcing regulations. What eventually healed the river communities was a musical based on the oil spill. "Slick of '76" is presented lightly (song lyrics read "The river may be covered with grease and slime/But that don't mean we can't have a good time"), giving residents a way to remember but not be overwhelmed with memories. One audience member summed up the musical's effect: "We experienced the spill all over again, except the real one didn't have the release and healing that this one did. You left with a feeling of hope."

Stephen Couch, Ph.D., is associate professor of sociology at Penn State Schuylkill Campus, 200 University Drive, Schuylkill Haven, PA 17972-2208; 717-385-6071. J. Stephen Kroll-Smith is an associate professor of sociology and associate director of the Environmental Social Science Research Institute at the University of New Orleans. Communities at Risk: Collective Responses to Technological Hazards was published by Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. in 1991.

Last Updated September 01, 1993