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Authors: Amanda Ripley

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Sociology, #Psychology, #Science, #Self Help, #Adult, #History

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BOOK: Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
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The Problem with Rescue Dogs

Conversations about disasters have always been colored by fear and superstition. The word
disaster,
from the Latin
dis
(away) and
astrum
(stars), can be translated as “ill-starred.” After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said that God was clearly “mad at America” for invading Iraq—and at black people for “not taking care of ourselves.” Inchoate as these plot lines may be, Nagin’s impulse—to inject meaning into chaos—was understandable. Narrative is the beginning of recovery.

But narrative can miss important subplots. In books and official reports, the tragedy of Katrina was blamed on politicians, poverty, and poor engineering, as it should have been. But there was another conversation that should have happened—not about blame, but about understanding. What did regular people do before, during, and after the storm? Why? And what could they have done better?

These days, we tend to think of disasters as acts of God and government. Regular people only feature into the equation as victims, which is a shame. Because regular people are the most important people at a disaster scene, every time.

In 1992, a series of sewer explosions caused by a gas leak ripped through Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city. The violence came from below, rupturing neighborhoods block by block. Starting at 10:30
A.M
., at least nine separate explosions ripped open a jagged trench more than a mile long. About three hundred people died. Some five thousand houses were razed. The Mexican Army was called in. Rescuers from California raced to help. Search-and-rescue dogs were ordered up.

But first, before anyone else, regular people were on the scene saving one another. They did incredible things, these regular people. They lifted rubble off survivors with car jacks. They used garden hoses to force air into voids where people were trapped. In fact, as in most disasters, the vast majority of rescues were done by ordinary folks. After the first two hours, very few people came out of the debris alive. The search-and-rescue dogs did not arrive until twenty-six hours after the explosion.

It’s only once disaster strikes that ordinary citizens realize how important they are. For example, did you know that most serious plane accidents are survivable? On this point, the statistics are quite clear. Of all passengers involved in serious accidents between 1983 and 2000, 56 percent survived. (“Serious” is defined by the National Transportation Safety Board as accidents involving fire, severe injury,
and
substantial aircraft damage.) Moreover, survival often depends on the behavior of the passenger. These facts have been well known in the aviation industry for a long time. But unless people have been in a plane crash, most individuals have no idea.

Since 9/11 the U.S. government has sent over $23 billion to states and cities in the name of homeland security. Almost none of that money has gone toward intelligently enrolling regular people like you and me in the cause. Why don’t we tell people what to do when the nation is on Orange Alert against a terrorist attack—instead of just telling them to be afraid? Why does every firefighter in Casper, Wyoming (pop. 50,632), have an eighteen-hundred-dollar HAZMAT suit—but we don’t each have a statistically derived ranking of the hazards we actually face, and a smart, creative plan for dealing with them?

All across the nation we have snapped plates of armor onto our professional lifesavers. In return, we have very high expectations for these brave men and women. Only after everything goes wrong do we realize we’re on our own. And the bigger the disaster, the longer we will be on our own. No fire department can be everywhere at once, no matter how good their gear.

The July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on London buses and subway trains killed fifty-two people. The city’s extensive surveillance camera system was widely praised for its help during the ensuing investigation. Less well known is how unhelpful the technology was to regular people on the trains. The official report on the response would find one “overarching, fundamental lesson”: emergency plans had been designed to meet the needs of emergency
officials,
not regular people. On that day, the passengers had no way to let the train drivers know that there had been an explosion. They also had trouble getting out; the train doors were not designed to be opened by passengers. Finally, passengers couldn’t find first aid kits to treat the wounded. It turned out that supplies were kept in subway supervisors’ offices, not on the trains.

Luck Is Unreliable

Here’s the central conundrum addressed by this book: we flirt shamelessly with risk today, constructing city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines. Largely because of where we live, disasters have become more frequent and more expensive. But as we build ever more impressive buildings and airplanes, we do less and less to build better survivors.

How did we get this way? The more I learned, the more I wondered how much of our survival behaviors—and misbehaviors—could be explained by evolution. After all, we evolved to escape predators, not buildings that reach a quarter mile into the sky. Has technology simply outpaced our survival mechanisms?

But there are two kinds of evolution: the genetic kind and the cultural kind. Both shape our behavior, and the cultural kind has gotten a lot faster. We now have many ways to create “instincts”: we can learn to do better or worse. We can pass on traditions about how to deal with modern risks, just as we pass on language.

So then the question became, why weren’t we doing a better job instilling survival skills through our culture?
Globalization
is one of those words that gets hijacked so often it loses its meaning. That’s partly because the word encompasses so much, including opposing ideas. In the past two centuries, we have become far less connected to our families and communities. At the same time, we have become more dependent upon one another and technology. We are isolated in our codependence, paradoxically.

More than 80 percent of Americans now live in or near cities and rely upon a sprawling network of public and private entities to get food, water, electricity, transportation, and medicine. We make almost nothing for ourselves. So a disaster that strikes one group of people is more likely than ever to affect others. But just as we have become more interdependent, we have become more detached—from our neighborhoods and traditions. This is a break from our evolutionary history. Humans and our evolutionary ancestors spent most of the past several million years living in small groups of relatives. We evolved through passing on our genes—and our wisdom—from generation to generation. But today, the kinds of social ties that used to protect us from threats get neglected. In their place, we have substituted new technology, which only works some of the time.

In May of 1960, the largest earthquake ever measured occurred off the coast of Chile, killing a thousand people. Luckily, Hawaii’s automated alert system kicked in, and tsunami sirens went off ten hours before the island was hit. The technology worked exactly as planned. But it turned out that most of the people who heard the siren did not evacuate. They weren’t sure what the noise meant. Some thought it signaled that they should be alert for more information. The technology was there but the traditions weren’t. A total of sixty-one people died in Hawaii that day.

It’s hard to trace a single cause for why we do what we do under extreme duress. The chapters that follow allow us to test several hypotheses against real disasters. I’ve tried to resist the urge to concoct one grand narrative. But even in that complexity, simple truths emerge. The more disaster survivors I met, the more convinced I became that the solutions to our problems were not necessarily complicated. They were more social than technological. Some were old-fashioned. But we need to understand how our brain works in disasters before we can save ourselves.

Before we go any further, it’s probably wise to acknowledge that the vast majority of Westerners do not die in disasters; they die of diseases that attack from within, not violence that comes from outside. Alzheimer’s disease kills many more people than fire. Even if you do make a particularly dramatic exit, it probably won’t be in a disaster. You are more likely to die of food poisoning than you are of drowning.

It is, however, quite likely that you will be
affected
by a disaster. In an August 2006
Time
magazine poll of one thousand Americans, about half of those surveyed said they had personally experienced a disaster or public emergency. In fact, about 91 percent of Americans live in places at a moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high-wind damage, or terrorism, according to an estimate calculated in 2006 for
Time
by the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

Traditionally, the word
disaster
refers to any sudden calamity causing great loss of life or property. You’ll notice that in this book I veer off into misfortunes that don’t technically fit: car accidents and shootings, for example. But I want to include these everyday tragedies for two reasons. First, because human behavior is the same, whether we are in a cruise ship or a Honda. We can, strange as it may sound, learn how we will behave in earthquakes from studying how we behave in a holdup, and vice versa. Car accidents and shooting rampages are, like airplane crashes, modern calamities that we did not evolve to survive.

The other reason to define disasters broadly is that small tragedies add up to megadisasters. Cumulatively, car accidents kill forty thousand people in the United States each year. Everyone reading this book knows someone who died in a car accident. Guns kill another thirty thousand Americans every year. For the rippling circles of friends and families that the victims leave behind, a gunshot feels exactly like a disaster, without the national recognition. So I define the word broadly to include all kinds of accidents that kill too many people.

One last caveat: disasters are predictable, but surviving them is not. No one can promise you a plan of escape. If life—and death—were that simple, this book would already have been written. But that doesn’t mean we should live in willful ignorance, either. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “Call on God, but row away from the rocks.”

We need to get to know our oldest personality, the one that takes over in a crisis and even makes fleeting appearances in our daily lives. It is at the core of who we are. “If an engineer wants to know about what he’s designing, he puts it under great amounts of stress,” says Peter Hancock, who has been studying human performance for more than twenty years for the U.S. military. “It’s the same with human beings. If you want to find out how things operate under normal conditions, it’s very interesting to find out how we operate under stress.” Without too much trouble, we can teach our brains to work more quickly, maybe even more wisely, under great stress. We have more control over our fates than we think. But we need to stop underestimating ourselves.

The knowledge is out there. In laboratories and on shooting ranges, there are people who know what happens to our bodies and minds under extreme duress. Scientists who study the brain’s fear response can now see which parts of our brains light up under stress. Military researchers conduct elaborate experiments to try to predict who will melt down in a crisis and who will thrive. Police, soldiers, race car drivers, and helicopter pilots train to anticipate the strange behaviors they will encounter at the worst of times. They know that it’s too late to learn those lessons in the midst of a crisis.

Then there are the survivors of disasters, the witnesses who channel the voices of the victims. They were there, sitting next to them, seeing what they saw. And afterward, the survivors spend some portion of their lives thinking about why they lived when so many did not. They were lucky, all of them. Luck is unreliable. But almost all of the survivors I have met say there are things they wish they had known, things they want you to know.

Unfortunately, all of these good people rarely talk to one another. Airplane safety experts don’t trade stories with neuroscientists. Special Forces instructors don’t spend a lot of time with hurricane victims. And none of these people have much opportunity to share what they know with regular people. So their wisdom remains stashed away in a sort of black box of the human experience.

This book goes inside the black box and stays there.
The Unthinkable
is not a book about disaster recovery; it’s about what happens in the midst—before the police and firefighters arrive, before reporters show up in their rain slickers, before a structure is imposed on the loss. This is a book about the survival arc we all must travel to get from danger to safety.

The Survival Arc

In every kind of disaster, we start in about the same place and travel through three phases. We’ll call the first phase denial. Except in extremely dire cases, we tend to display a surprisingly creative and willful brand of denial. This denial can take the form of delay, which can be fatal, as it was for some on 9/11. But why do we do it, if it is so dangerous? What other functions does denial serve?

How long the delay lasts depends in large part on how we calculate risk. Our risk analysis depends less upon facts than upon a shadowy sense of dread, as Chapter 2 details through the story of a man waiting for Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Once we get through the initial shock of the denial phase, we move into deliberation, the second phase of the survival arc. We know something is terribly wrong, but we don’t know what to do about it. How do we decide? The first thing to understand is that nothing is normal. We think and perceive differently. We become superheroes with learning disabilities. Chapter 3 explores the anatomy of fear through the story of a diplomat taken hostage at a cocktail party. “There are times when fear is good,” Aeschylus said. “It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.” But for every gift the body gives us in a disaster, it takes at least one away—sometimes bladder control, other times vision.

BOOK: Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why
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