S. N. Mukherjee


The central theme in this book is well stated in the paper by Lola Sharon Davidson:

... a disaster may start as a natural event, but in becoming a disaster it becomes a social experience, that is an experience defined and interpreted according to social beliefs. Not even natural disasters can remain purely 'natural'. At first glance some events appear unequivocally disastrous. Earthquakes and plagues seem to afflict indiscriminately everyone who has the misfortune to be in thetr vicinity. Yet some people are more vulnerable to their assaults than others -the poor more than the rich, or urban dwellers more than those who live in the country. And while few people would dispute that such events are disastrous, people nevertheless differ on what such disasters may mean.

In 1974 on one December day, Darwin was struck by Cyclone Tracey. What followed confirms Davidson's points about disasters. The nation was shaken by the pitiful pictures of a city destroyed, thousands made homeless and many dead. This happened during the Christmas celebrations. Suddenly there was a strong feeling right across the nation; it was as if everyone in Australia was involved with the disaster. The television recorded moving scenes at Sydney Airport; people rushed to help the evacuees from Darwin with blankets, food parcels and offers of shelters. Then relief funds and relief work were organised to help the victims and to rebuild the city. Heroes were born. There was a social and economic analysis of the disaster and the victims. And then politics raised its ugly head, acrimony followed, heroes became villains. Cyclone Tracey could no longer be considered a pure 'natural' disaster. It was a social and political experience. It occurred to me that the Darwin disaster could be considered as Australian History in miniature, for it reflected all areas of Australian life, society, culture, economics and politics. I thought that a study of this and other disasters could make us understand societies and culture better, not only with how these societies and cultures react to emergencies, but crises like natural disasters often bring to the surface some deep rooted problems and cultural preoccupations which otherwise remain unnoticed.

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