When a disaster strikes the media highlight the international sympathy and the aid offered by world NGOs and how the government mobilises assistance. This article on the recent floods in Germany draws attention to the involvement of local people in providing relief to one another.
"The greatest help is provided by the local people," observed the Berlin disaster researcher Martin Voss. "First of all, from those who are not yet so affected so that they can still do something: They lend a hand."
Many, who otherwise perceive people as selfish and competitive, are amazed at the huge wave of helpfulness. However, research has shown for decades that people in disaster situations genuinely show solidarity, says Martin Voss. "At the moment when people get into this kind of emergency, the primary behaviour clearly becomes being there for another."
The solidarity, the willingness to help is enormous, as also is the effort put into going beyond the state or organisations to get involved.
Hubert Schilles, a man in his mid-sixties from an hour west in the Eifel region had unblocked the drain of a dam with his 30-ton excavator, risking his life in the process. He saved more than 10,000 people directly affected by a possible dam breach.
Karsten Steiner uses a heavy excavator in Sinzig to lift mud and garbage debris piled meters high to clear the road. Three days after the disaster, Steiner had driven his excavator onto his low-loader nearly 300 kilometres north of here to help, at his own expense. When asked about the loss of earnings, Steiner only replies: "Look around: the people here are much worse off than me"
"The doers are the real heroes in this situation," says disaster researcher, Wolf Dombrowsky. "Those who get started right away and get things done. And the best are also those who coordinate and divide up the tasks, telling the others 'you do this, you do that.' " The Bremen-based disaster researcher emphasizes how much the normal competitive mechanisms in society are overridden in a disaster situation. "Here the people are stripped of everything. And anyone who helps is a hero."
Dombrowsky expects individual aid initiatives to decline. "The people who go there and help mostly have jobs. They have families, children, relatives... And then comes the feeling, that I have to go back to work or my family needs me too." At that point, at least, the professional aid effort has to step up, says Dombrowsky. "But then even the worst is over and spontaneous help is no longer necessary."
That's when the reconstruction phase begins.