When Disaster Strikes: What Writers Can Glean From Harvey, Irma & Maria

To keep a healthy perspective on my problems, I often tell myself, “You’re doing just fine if you can drink the tap water without getting sick.” For the past ten days, my neighbors in Naples, Florida haven’t had that luxury. Hurricane Irma left them with a boil water order and a host of other problems most of us don’t encounter in modern-day America.

Evem though I evacuated (and am still evacuated) my position as the president of our condo association has kept me quite busy and given me new understanding of what happens to society when simple things like sewer systems break down.

If you are a writer, film maker, or other type of storyteller, and you are writing a sorry that includes a major disaster, a post-apocalyptic, or a dystopian story, studying the aftermath of Harvey, Irma, and Maria can help you add conflict and realism to your project. I’ve listed a few things below that I would never have thought to include in these types of stories until Irma hit Naples.

Loss of power means more than just no air conditioning, refrigeration, or cooking. Irma toom out 96% of Naples’s power. This didn’t just include residences. It included water plants, sewage systems, gas stations, basically everything. No power meant no ability to process credit cards. The gas pumps, well didn’t. Lift stations that move the sewage from homes to the sewage plant stopped working. Unprepared residents had no way to get food or drinkable water. People stood in gas lines at the few open stations for four hours for days, and if they didn’t have cash, they couldn’t buy. In your disaster stories, think about what might happen to the sewage after only a few days of no power, especially if it gets flooded. (Hint: it starts coming out the manholes. It also spreads disease.)

Water, Non-perishable food, and gas are the hottest commodities. My friends stood in line for four hours for gas, two hours just for ice, and the same for water. (Municipalities need electricity to get water to homes. No electric, no water.) Fights broke out over gas. Deputies had to direct traffic in the gas lines and maintain a presence and to keep order. Grocery stores lost their perishable items and sold out of their non-perishable items before the storm even hit. In your stories, focus on these things. Obtaining food and water to survive will be your characters’ greatest source of conflict and tension.

The smell. Stagnate water. Broken sewer systems. Dead animals. People who can’t shower. If you have ever been backpacking, you might be familiar with that sweaty/dirty/smokey backpacking funk smell that sticks to everything. Find someone who served time in the military to give you a better idea of what happens when people can’t shower. (Thanks to Jerry Phillips for giving me this idea.) Including these details can enrich your stories.

Inescapable, oppressive heat and humidity transforms humanity. The calm after a stores is just that: calm. No wind. No breeze. And heat. Wet heat. It drives the sanity out of people. I watched friends on Facebook go from excitement that they survived to despair only a few days later and back to thankful elation once their power returned. The homeowners in my condo literally changed personalities once the AC came back on. If your characters are exposed to heat and humidity with no escape, they will become grumpier than a hungry person in a Snickers commercial. If they are elderly or small children, they could also die, which happened.

When food, water, and gas are scarce, remember that someone has guns. I’m not making a political statement. I’m stating the facts. If guns exist at all in your story, then someone has guns. Your job as the author is to figure out who has the guns and how they intend to use them. Who is armed? Just the law enforcement and National Guard? Does your setting include gangs? Do your residents arm themselves? If you think gunviolence is bad now, imagine what might happen to a community when necessities for life become scarce or non-existent. Thank goodness our law enforcement kept a strong presence near gas stations and grocery stores. Whoever has the guns will have the power to control these items. 

Looting will happen. Enough said on that, but take it a step further. People didn’t just take items from stores and empty homes. They took necessary items from occupied homes. One of our friends had his generator stollen from his house while it was plugged in and working. Another one of my friends heard people outside his house trying to steal his generator. (He has a concealed carry license, and was able to defend his property. See, whoever has the guns…) One business had filled its fleet of vans with gas in preparation before the storm. When they arrived after the storm, someone had siphoned all of the gas from the vans. Make sure to include these types of events in your stories.

Compromised communication will  aid in society’s breakdown. On friend told me the scariest part of Irma happened in the few days after the storm when they had no idea what was going on. Irma took out cell phone towers, the internet, phone lines, and  mail service. Our society has moved away from radios to Pandora and Spotify, which don’t work if the internet is down. Even if you have a radio, the radio stations need electricity too. When 96% of your county is without power, there’s a good chance you ain’t getting radio. When people don’t know what is going on, fear takes over. They start imagining the worst: the worst of what might happen and the worst of others. They will falsely accuse their neighbors. They will suspect foul play where it doesn’t exist. Use lack of communication to mess with your characters perceptions. It will create conflict, which turns pages.

Fear and despair are powerful enemies. They make us do dumb stuff on an ordinary day. What do you think will happen if you take away a whole city’s food, water, shelter, and gas? How will your characters behave? I can honestly tell you I don’t know what I would do if my child was starving. Would I follow the law? I would like to think so, but fear and hunger can make people do things they would never do in ordinary circumstances.

Hope is a better weapon than a gun. People in Naples knew the electric company was doing everything possible to restore power. The county and city communicated using Facebook and Twitter.  Evacuees coming home texted friends and posted pictures of the electric trucks coming to help. Naples residents were given hope, which is part of the reason they didn’t need to worry about guns. Only time will tell how Puerto Rico will hold up when they are being told that they won’t have power for 6 months. If you have put your characters in a hopeless situation, prepare to write the fallout.

If your story includes a mega-disaster, try to research real disasters. Read the personal articles. Look at pictures. The more specifics from life you can include, the more real your story will feel. 

How about you? Do you have any concepts about disasters to add to this list?

Update since first posting: I’ve heard from many of you and I need to add a free things to this list:

Medical care required electricity. Thanks to Carol for reminding me of this. Naples was able to get power back to its hospitals without any news worthy incident, but Puerto Rico is going to have some major problems. Hospitals need electricity, not just for lighting, but for all the machines. Some monitor; some keep people alive. Hospitals have generators, but if you have a post apocalyptic story, a lot of people will pass away at the hospital once the gas disappears. Regarding monitoring, I would have died in childbirth without the machines that monitored my baby’ s heartbeat, so keep that in mind. Many people hooked up to machines that keep them alive would struggle as well. Don’t forget the effect of no AC on the elderly and sick. In Miami, 8 nursing home residents died from over heating.

People are traumatized. Their emotions will be fragile, and emotional breakdowns will occur. Tempers will flare. The stress will cause people to be unable to perform regular tasks easily. 

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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3 Responses to When Disaster Strikes: What Writers Can Glean From Harvey, Irma & Maria

  1. Thanks so much for this terrific resource! I’m going to share it with my student writers. It offers them a great model of how to think about and flesh out more than just disaster stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daniel Peterson says:

    No movie-maker can put the grit to reality like the one who wrote this script. The Bible says who wrote it. Book of Zechariah, more specifically. I challenge you to outdo him, though. Might be pretty incredible. Reality IS more interesting than the movies. Always was. Always will be. But people are blind and stupid. They choose to avoid friendship and bind down others into slavery to write their scripts and produce their “alternate realities.” Reality is all that exists. Friendship exists, but only when people allow it. But rather would they break the innocent than ever bend themselves those who glut on the movie business.


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