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This article originally appeared in NCP Clinical Quarterly 4(2): Spring 1994

Survivors' Stories Header

Up From the Embers: A Disaster Survivor's Story

By Susanna M. Hoffman, Ph.D.

On October 20, 1991, a dry, hot day with unusual, turbulent winds, a spark from a fire of the previous day that the tranquil residence of Oakland and Berkeley, California were totally unaware of, reignited. From that spark developed a ferocious firestorm which swept down from the hills, leaped a multi-lane freeway, and within essentially six hours destroyed 3,642 homes and four hundred apartments. The Oakland Firestorm was the largest urban fire that the United States has ever witnessed.

Twenty-five people died, and six thousand people were left homeless. Ninety-five percent of them lost virtually every possession they owned, for the fire had moved faster than sixty miles per hour. Most people received no warning. Those that did had little time and rarely the presence of mind to gather any belongings.

I am one of the survivors. I lost my home I lost my clothing, furniture, photographs, heirlooms, art work, beloved objects, one car and two pets. Since my office was in my home, I also lost twenty-five years of anthropological research, seven manuscripts not yet into publishers, all my other writings, ideas, projects in development, the slides and photos of travels, lectures and course notes, and my entire library.

Though thankfully I lost no family, no friends, no people, still to describe the devastation both physical and psychological of this kind of loss is like trying to define eternity or infinity. It defies words, evades phrase, and renders mute any and every euphemistic catch all.

Much of the Oakland Firestorm occurred within a community which was, by any standard, affluent. The victims were almost to a person highly educated and they embodied the modern, progressive, savvy. They incorporated the activist, independent, gubernatorial, not a few powerful, the politically aware, attuned and vocal.

As a consequence people responded to the tragedy in ways that departed from other disasters. We formed groups that were for the first time consumer activist as well as recovery in nature and our actions may well change the face of disaster treatment in America and quite possibly the operations of a major business confederation-- the insurance industry. On the other hand, as a community on the cutting edge of modern, liberal, hip, socially advanced culture, we revealed under the stress of calamity numerous weaknesses hidden behind our emergent, new-day social organization.

As is the case in the initial phase of disasters, the community rallied together. With our acumen as a group, we were quick to cut through the red tape and the demands of diverse agencies that usually engulf disaster victims. We rapidly enlisted experts, often from among us, to guide us through the issues at hand.

Survivors of disasters commonly develop a target whom they feel has mistreated them and upon whom they vent their rancor. It is usually the government, the distribution agencies, or the empowered upper class. Among the Oakland Firestorm survivors the enemy that emerged was America's great Goliath, the insurance companies. At first few worried about the replacement of valuables and homes. This was a community thoroughly blanketed by a thick, assuaging mantel of insurance. The solid homes, lush landscape and well tended cars were presumably well protected. To the shock of the victims, the majority discovered that their homes were grossly underinsured-- full coverage did not mean replacement, replacement did not provide for cost of foundation or code up grades -- and other insurance policy manipulations. We were not a people to take such discoveries lightly, and where most disaster victims have scant ability to confront the powers facing them, despite our emotional upheaval, we commanded the faculties.

Helped by a non-profit, basically one-woman-run consumer agency called United Policy Holders, we collected. Starting with large general meetings, those of us with particular companies located other policy holders and formed individual victim-consumer groups. Never before had the insurance companies face congregated leagues of policy holders. The effect was tremendous. With well-informed groups knowledgeable about the law and what treatment each received, the inconsistencies emerged, non-disclosed rights were aired, adjusters and companies were confronted and we filed complaints by the dozens with the state insurance commissioner.

And we won. In the face of vocal and organized groups of disaster survivors one by one the insurance companies crumbled. Eventually all the corporations provided full replacement value to all policy holders regardless of the stipulations of the original policies.

We have gone yet further. We have petitioned to change the laws regarding the IRS treatment of our insurance awards. Both houses of congress passed our bill. President Bush vetoed it, but we have resubmitted the legislation. We are lobbying for changes in the entire insurance industry that include clear disclosure of exactly what policies cover, what riders are available, accurate replacement cost estimates, and a standard format for the treatment of claims.

Since so many survivors were therapeutically aware, immediately psychological support groups were mobilized, and because of the political nature of the community, specific social segments, perceived as having special interests and reactions -- women, single persons, elderly -- also formed recovery groups. In general people in these groups have recovered better than those who have not participated.

Still, despite all the successes that the survivor's progressiveness fostered, the relatively novel aspects of our lives fell away to a stunning degree while older patterns resurged. One of the primary expressions of the conservative regeneration concerns gender role. The Oakland Firestorm survivors to a large degree represented the pinnacle of modern sexual definition. The women of the community were independent, feminist. Men were just, equitable, and feminist as well. Couples were by and large egalitarian. But for many, especially couples, their progress in carving out new gender behavior suffered a fifty year set back.

In the shock of loss many men retreated into the traditional cultural persona. They launched into command and took action. Assuming the family helm, they proceeded to exercise autonomous decision. With the domicile gone, women found themselves thrown into utter domesticity and fell unwittingly into old habits of compliance. Women who had staked out authority in their homes and identities in the outside world lost the tenuous allowance that permitted their advances, as prior cultural dictates overawed them. The private space sacrificed in rental homes was often women's private space. Insurance companies issued checks to men alone despite the community property nature of the houses, and husbands couldn't understand the objection.

The resurgence of old gender roles overlapped with another traditional cultural division, that of public and private arena. Many men among the disaster survivors found solace and immediate escape in their public world. Many women, despite whether they worked or not, found themselves drowned in a sea of private detail, towels, toothbrushes, underwear, child care. Equitable division of which partner, despite sex, performed which chore, disappeared, with men generally calling the prerogative of work and women by and large taking up all other tasks. As a woman, even single and despite the strength of my career, I have yet to resurface from the sea of pots, pans, and paperwork. I lost not only my work, but at least a year of work.

Having maintained access to the public and the concomitant approval that sphere garners, the men among the survivors seem to have more quickly claimed full recovery. The women, uprooted from or severely diminished in their venues, seem to have suffered more depression and loss of esteem. The change has left many in both genders perplexed.

To the distress of many, another modern American social development manifested considerable fragility, that is our new form of kinship, friendship. The Oakland Firestorm survivors had marched well into the brave new world of social alliances. Extended families had long given way to nuclear. Many nuclear families were broken down yet further, and most victims felt their closest ties lay with non-related friends. But our new bonds, mere decades rather than millennia old, disclosed their lack of shared and culturally reinforced rules. Friendships bear no well defined schedule of obligations, no agree upon course of expected action, no set of prescribed emotions. As a consequence, while many friends proved themselves Rocks of Gibraltar, virtually every survivor suffered wrenching shifts in associations. Friends did not, or could not, offer aid or comfort. Friends grew impatient and proved unsympathetic. Friends disappeared. The tremendous changes in alliances constitutes one of the most painful features of the disaster for many people.

What did maintain, predictably and conservatively -- though not for everyone -- were links that lie more deeply rooted in our culture, blood kinship ties and membership in social institutions. Brothers, sisters, and cousins arrived with tables and chairs. Churches and synagogues, clubs, schools, charitable and community organizations proved steadfast and caring. They rose to and beyond the occasion. This was a community where, with its affluence and newfangledness, few maintained more than slight connections or gave much heed to such dusty institutions. Yet old culturally established structures prevailed and ties we scarce recognized as ties sustained us.

It is now some eighteen months since the fire. I still feel, we all feel, like we are swimming in the surf and cannot come into the shore. The tidal wave has passed, but many other waves have followed. I am now "dog paddling" through the breakers of jealousy combined with the attack of the financial sharks offering to "help" me invest my money. Many co-survivor's still struggle with retrenched insurance companies over final claims. I am sad to say those who have given up rebuilding and have instead resettled in purchased homes seem to be faring better than those going through the rebuilding process. Rebuilding is laden with difficulties and among those rebuilding the exploitation common to disasters has been the highest. I have chosen neither to rebuild nor, at this time, buy another home, a path that is fraught with disturbing detachment. I am hoping to grasp the one evanescent payoff the experience dangles before me. When any calamity occurs, people experience a quick opening of a window in which they see themselves, their lives, and the possibility for revitalization. With a long term disaster, I have come to discover, that window opens and shuts again and again. The difficult part is that the window also erases defenses against emotion. The good part is the opportunities for creativity appear legion.

Susanna Hoffman is an anthropologist specializing in social structure, symbolism, culture and personality, and is a survivor of the Oakland Hills Firestorm. Susanna presents her unique perspective employing a research technique known as "participant observation" in which the observer "enters into the culture and comments from the inside." Susanna received her doctorate from University of California at Berkeley and is a former faculty member at University of San Francisco.


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