The bright side of disaster tourism -

The bright side of disaster tourism


I spent most of yesterday wandering around Boston for a piece about the bombings to be published in the magazine. It marks the second consecutive time I’ve driven to the U.S. for work with the country’s flag flying at half staff; in December, I hustled to Newtown, Connecticut, to cover the Sandy Hook massacre.

You’d think rushing to a place that isn’t your own to witness and chronicle the aftermath of calamity would be depressing, and it is at times. You feel like a disaster tourist, there only to see the worst and get out. It doesn’t help that in each case, I’ve felt compelled to contact my sisters in the States to make absolutely sure they weren’t affected by the guns and bombs going off south of the border.

Yet being a disaster tourist forces you to find the bright spots. In Connecticut, no more than five kilometres from where a gunman killed 20 children, six teachers, his mother and himself, I watched as a group of Sandy Hook families blossom from an ad hoc support network delivering food to victims’ families into a full-blown charity that to date has collected and distributed over $1 million to those families.

The My Sandy Hook charity, as it became known in those fraught, wretched nights, has also become a leading critic of how larger charities, such as the United Way, collect and distribute (or fail to distribute) money in the wake of tragedy. Arguably more than anything, this will have a direct influence on the lives of survivors and victims of the inevitable future massacres in the United States.

In Boston, the bright spot I saw was in the number of people who didn’t die. Think about it: two huge bombs go off—each with a blast radius of about 60 feet, according to an EMT chief I spoke with, and each packed with, in the words of one doctor, “shrapnel, some BBs, some oval-shaped pieces, and what looked like little metal arrows”—in downtown Boston, when the city is brimming with people. There is chaos everywhere. People are dead, yes, but many more are close to death.

Tragically, three people died. But the fact that it wasn’t dozens more is a testament to what happened on the ground. As in Sandy Hook, it took disaster to affect change. Following 9/11, Boston-area hospitals developed a disaster response program known as Phase C that ensures full staffing and emergency room capacity in the event of a large-scale emergency. Phase C was enacted in the minutes following the blasts. The result: there were no bottlenecks on the site, and not one of Boston’s hospitals was overburdened. The system worked.

And so Boston was able to be normal that much quicker. Newbury Street, one block south north of where the bombs went off, was packed the following day. People on Newbury—fratty-looking men in blazers and Red Sox caps, old women trailing behind designer dogs, LuluLemon’ed moms fussing over children, and student-aged hipsters darting between them like a particularly self-absorbed school of fish—need their coffee, their clothes and their cupcakes, which Newbury provided. Not 24 hours after the tragedy, Boston afforded them, and everyone else, the luxury of their everyday lives.

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