Wednesday, August 31, 2011

All Hazard Preparedness (for Some, Anyway)

Rikers Island circled in blue on evacuation map from NY Times

As Hurricane Irene churned its way up the East Coast last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of coastal areas of the city. 300,000 people were ordered out of their homes (although a fair number didn't leave).

In the middle of this unusual situation, someone asked a very interesting question. What about Rikers Island? For those of you who don't watch Law & Order reruns, Rikers is the principal correctional facility for New York City. It currently houses about 12,000 prisoners. As the name suggests, it's on an island, and it's smack dab in the middle of the zone that was evacuated ahead of the hurricane.

But Rikers Island was not evacuated for Irene. We can argue about whether it -- or anywhere else in New York City -- really needed to be. But it turns out that Rikers has no evacuation plan. Let me reiterate that, because it really is striking. There is no plan in place to evacuate Rikers Island under any circumstance. Not a hurricane, tornado, flood, fire, earthquake, riot or anything else. If someone brings a bomb into the visitor's room and they can't diffuse it, too bad. If the whole island catches fire, oh, well.

I know that concern about the welfare of criminals is not a politically popular stance, and maybe that's why they haven't figured this out. But there are some other things to consider. First of all, Rikers houses people temporarily awaiting transfer to other facilities, those serving less than a year in jail and those awaiting trial who cannot make bail or are being held without bail. This is not, overall, the place you find the most hardened criminals of New York. What's more, a sizable number of them have never been convicted of a crime. They are accused and poor, but presumed innocent.

What's more, in order to maintain the prisoners at Rikers, there is a sizable staff of guards, cleaning crew, cooks, medical personnel and others who make the place run. Those people aren't even accused of crimes. They're just doing their jobs. And as long as there are prisoners on Rikers Island, they have to be there.

The public school where I was Principal has not one but two different evacuation locations plus a variety of plans based on the hazard. We have to practice evacuating the building, as does every school in the country. If your business doesn't know how to evacuate its personnel and its customers in the event of a disaster, I'd call that negligent. But a facility with about 20,000 people in it, all told, has no plan.

I'm sure evacuating Rikers would be a nightmare. It is possible that even if they had a plan, implementing it for Irene would not have been worth it. Fine. But not having a plan at all isn't just stupid, it's criminal. I don't know which is more horrifying -- that there is no plan, or that nobody thought it was a problem until now.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Irene, Goodnight

The remains of a VT highway bridge.

It seems like I should have something to say about Hurricane Irene. I write about traumatic events, and this storm certainly did some serious damage to parts of the east coast and was a major nuisance to others. At least 40 people died, and many more lost their homes and businesses.

It's not really that I don't have anything to say about Irene. But all weekend and yesterday I found myself having difficulty formulating something. I think I've finally put my finger on why. Put simply, the media coverage of Irene stunk. Or, perhaps more precisely, the national media coverage -- which was the only coverage you could get if you weren't in the storm's path -- stunk. And I really don't have much to say about the storm as it was portrayed in the media.

The former Rte. 7
Here's the problem. Irene headed significantly further north than most Atlantic hurricanes. Instead of hitting the gulf coast or Florida, or even just the Carolinas, it was predicted, in addition to North Carolina, to beat up Washington, DC and New York City. These are two major, well-known, densely populated cities that don't generally get hurricanes.

This was big news, and the potential for disruption to those two cities got a ton of coverage. I found the breathless speculation that Wall Street might not open for business on Monday a little much. Yes, that would be unusual. Yes, it would be newsworthy. And if it happened, there would be much more important stories of damage and loss of life to talk about. It's a stock exchange. It's one day. Let's get a grip.

Killington Ski Resort base lodge
When the storm actually hit, it was big and important, but not necessarily in the places that news outlets were most prepared to cover. Yesterday morning's coverage on NPR at 8:00 AM (which is when I was in the car listening to it) led with a teaser quote from a woman in New Jersey saying, "The scariest part were the tornado warnings." It then went on to report that there was damage "up and down the east coast" and then cut to a live report from Keene, NY, which was absolutely devastated by flooding. The first story on "Morning Edition" was about how New York was getting back to normal and things weren't as bad as predicted. From this, one could easily get the impression that there was a flood in one town in upstate New York, "some damage" everywhere else, and the big issue was getting commuters into NYC.

Except that is not even vaguely a decent picture of where the news from Irene actually happened. The state of Vermont was massacred by this storm (Keene, NY, by the way, is fairly near the Vermont border). Vermont, since it is not on the Atlantic coast, was not nearly as over-prepared as some other places. The damage was horrific, the power was out, and no one had reporters there to report. One might expect NPR (or other outlets -- I'm just picking on them because that's where I got my news yesterday) to talk about this, even if only to say that information was sketchy. They didn't. The word "Vermont" did not make the newscast.

On the one hand, I think storm coverage is often overblown. Hurricanes happen. It's a storm, not the apocalypse, at least most of the time. But I certainly think we owe it to our friends in Vermont to have headlines that are a little more relevant than "Storm Doesn't Close Wall Street After All."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Explaining the British Riots

Last week, parts of the United Kingdom were rocked by four nights of violent rioting. The initial incident began when a planned peaceful protest in the of the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a black man, in the Tottenham section of London turned violent. The trouble spread, first to other parts of London and then to other parts of the UK.

If you read the coverage of this, you will find two perspectives on what went wrong. The official view taken by the British government, is that this was senseless criminality by people who have no actual complaint against anyone but who are using the excuse to cause trouble. This was exemplified by Prime Minister David Cameron, who told the British Parliament that the Duggan shooting
was then used as an excuse by opportunist thugs in gangs, first in Tottenham itself, then across London and then in other cities. It is completely wrong to say there is any justifiable causal link.
On the other side, you have people who argue that, while the Duggan shooting itself may not be the cause of the unrest, the rioting is nonetheless based in people's deep dissatisfaction with their current situation. Writing on, Matthias Matthijs notes,
The present moment . . . is defined by a more disorganized class politics of reaction, propelled by huge inequalities and a perceived injustice and indifference by the state to the fate of those involved.
So, which is it? Is this rioting the work of criminals who saw their chance and took it, or of the dispossessed victims of economic and judicial inequality? And why is everyone so sure they know the right answer?

Traumatic events often challenge deeply held beliefs about the world. Given this conflict, people have two choices. They can assimilate the trauma into their worldview, or they can change their worldview to accommodate the trauma.

Let's imagine, by way of example, that I strongly believe that the world is safe. Then, one day, I am mugged. What do I do with that belief? I can change it and decide that the world is dangerous. Or I can take a view of the mugging that allows me to continue to believe the world is safe. In that case, the mugging was my fault for being where I should not have been. In other words, if the world is safe, it must be my fault.

Of course, the most adaptive thing to do is a mixture of both of these. In my mugging example, the healthiest place for me to land is with a belief that the world is generally safe, but probably not as safe as I once thought it was, and that given that I probably should not go to that particular area. Unfortunately, very often people over-accommodate (the world is dangerous) or over-assimilate (it's all my fault). These beliefs often get in the way of people recovering after a trauma.

You can see these two tendencies in the analysis of the London riots. David Cameron's version holds that London, and the UK in general, is full of criminals just waiting for their moment to cause havoc. This is an over-accommodated belief. In the face of danger, he is saying that the world is dangerous. He is also not taking any responsibility at all for the situation. The view that the UK's inequality caused the riots is, in much the same way, an over-assimilated belief. Faced with danger, this view holds that the world continues to be safe, so this bit of danger must be our (or somebody's) fault.

Just as in my mugging example, however, there is a healthy middle ground. It says that yes, the world is generally safe, but there are those who take advantage of situations. Our actions, or the actions of governments, furthermore, can make it less safe. The riots are neither purely the anger of the dispossessed (what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was referring to when he called riots "the language of the unheard") nor the work of pure thugs. Like everything else in life, they're complicated. Denying one side or the other will only make it that much harder to recover.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Do Mapping

My friend Ed is what I like to call an Internet savant. If you want to know something, and you think the Internet may have the information, ask Ed. In fact, even if you don't think the Internet may have it, ask Ed. In June of 2010, there was a small earthquake on the Ontario/Quebec border that could be felt in Ann Arbor. We don't get earthquakes, but I felt something. I looked on the USGS website to see if there was anything there, but it was too soon. So I sent a message to Ed. He knew.

One of Ed's particular talents is gather information from all over the place and compiling it in one place. He's particularly great at maps. During a power outage in central Ann Arbor last year, Ed invited people to let him know if their power was out. He mapped it on Google maps. The result was a very clear visual of where the outage was, where it wasn't, and what might be the cause (it turns out there's a substation right in the middle of it).

Last night, Ed's blog was about the rioting in London. He begins:
There is an instinct, when things go bad, to want to make sense of the situation by putting the fragments of information that you have on a map. Things are going badly around London tonight, and several people are making sense of it the best they can with maps of what is being reported on Twitter as #londonriot.
I thought this was an interesting observation. Why do we want to see maps in a crisis?

I think what Ed is referencing is actually a small piece of a much larger phenomenon. In a crisis, we try desperately to maintain our own sense of safety. There are all kinds of ways we do this, many of which you've heard me talk about before. We convince ourselves that those doing the "badness," as well as its victims, are not like us or are doing things we would not be doing. We place blame for it not being prevented or feel guilt that we allowed it. All of these are predicated on the idea that whatever has gone badly either has nothing to do with us (and hence could not happen to us) or that it was preventable (and hence we or others will prevent it from happening to us).

Ed's observation adds another dimension. We look for maps because we want to understand not just that what and who the event is do not concern us, but that where it is does not concern us either. As Ed points out, mapping helps us "make sense" of an incident. Reading that there is "rioting in London" doesn't actually tell us much. London is a big place with lots of people. Is there rioting all over, or just in a few places? Is it confined to the incident that initially sparked it, or is it spreading? Is it affecting the places I know about in London? How exactly am I supposed to feel about this?

When we look at a map of an incident, the badness goes from being generally "out there" to being very specific in its location. If it's not near us, we feel safe. And if we are there, we can see that it's not everywhere. There is a place where this is not happening. That means that the time is foreseeable when it will not be happening to us. In a crisis, good information, in whatever form, may be all we have to hold onto. That's why it's great to have an Internet savant like Ed on your side.
Friday, August 5, 2011

Serial Rapist in Ann Arbor: This Time It's Personal

Between July 15 and 26, six women walking alone at night in Ann Arbor were sexually assaulted. Two were raped, including one in the elevator of a parking garage. Police have released two composite sketches, which I've posted here, of the suspect(s). They are pretty sure they're looking for no more than two people, but they may be looking for one.

I have written in this space before about the low crime rate in Ann Arbor and environs. People around here do not expect this kind of thing to happen. This is a pretty safe town.

Over the weekend, the local media ran a story about crime in Ann Arbor in light of the recent attacks. It turns out the number of major crimes in all categories is actually down in Ann Arbor this year. That's right. Rape is down. Last year, there were 30 rapes reported between January 1 and July 30. This year there have been 23.

There are two aspects of this statistic that catch most of us by surprise, whether they should or not. The first, of course, is that rape is down at a time when women are very concerned for their safety. The second is that there have 23 rapes this year, 21 of which did not make the news. Why? Because the vast majority of rapes, like the vast majority of other crimes, happen between people who know each other. They are not the stranger in the dark alley, they are the friend or acquaintance in the living room, or the ex-boyfriend, or the estranged husband, or the current boyfriend or husband.

Someone really has been lurking in dark alleys in Ann Arbor, and that really is bad, don't get me wrong. Right now, the risk of being raped at random is elevated. But the reason it's news is because it's a stranger in a dark alley. When this guy is caught, it will barely put a dent in the sexual assault rate in this town. We'll still be a town where 21 rapes occur, instead of 23.

And yet that other town, the one with 21 attacks, felt so much safer. By about the third attack, I was sitting down with my teenage daughter and talking frankly about the attacks and about her safety. I told her that we generally trust her common sense not to do something obviously dangerous, and we didn't let her walk around downtown alone at night anyway. But until this guy is caught, I told her, she needed to regard some things that common sense might say was safe as not being safe, including getting into an elevator with one other person at any time of day downtown.

Last Friday afternoon, I drove to an appointment downtown in the mid-afternoon. I drive to this area often and feel quite secure. But on Friday, I noticed myself having feeling very anxious about where I was going to park. Even as I got more nervous as I approached my destination, I was also aware that this made no sense. I always find parking. If there's nothing on the street, there's something in the structure half a block away. That's when it hit me. I wasn't nervous about finding a spot. I was afraid to park in the structure.

As soon as I realized this, I got mad. Mad that someone out there is singlehandedly holding me and every other woman in this community hostage. Mad that men in our society are so much less likely to be sexually assaulted, certainly by a stranger. Mad at a society that fails to see this as an issue that is, at its core, about sexism.
A week later, this guy has still not been caught. I'm still mad. I hope, however, that when he is caught I still remember to feel mad on behalf of those other 21 women, and that I'm not just relieved that I can go back to believing that this is something that happens to other people.

Note: I make it a usual practice never to post the picture of the perpetrator of a crime so as not to give them any "glory." However, since this one is still out there, and somebody must know who he is, I have posted the composite sketches above. Please, if you recognize him, call the AAPD at 734-794-6939.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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