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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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In the Cessna, Klabin felt in control. The dread factor plummeted. But he had no control on commercial planes. So he remained just as frightened as ever. When we spoke more than five years after 9/11, Klabin still had not set foot on a passenger plane.

“Hazards have personalities,” says Paul Slovic, the risk expert, “kind of like people.” In the mid-1980s, Slovic was studying the potential impact of building a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The more he talked to people about their concerns, the more he realized that anything with the word
in it disturbed people—regardless of what the actual dangers were. The same goes for chemicals. When people are asked what comes to mind when they hear the word
the most frequent response by far is “dangerous”—or a synonym, like “toxic,” “hazardous,” “poison,” “deadly,” or “cancer.” Up to 75 percent of the public agrees with the following statement: “I try hard to avoid contact with chemicals and chemical products in my everyday life.”

Some of the most common disasters are the least feared. Fire, for example, usually kills more Americans each year than most other disasters combined. There is, at this point, very little we don’t know about fires. We know where and when they happen. We even know how to prevent them. Most fatal fires happen in people’s homes in December and January and are caused by arson or smoking. Deaths peak from midnight to 5:00
. In 2005, according to the National Fire Protection Association, 3,675 Americans died in fires. If all homes had sprinklers and smoke detectors with working batteries, that number would probably drop by at least a third.

Lightning is another underappreciated threat. It may be the most dangerous natural hazard in rich industrialized countries like the United States. About one hundred lightning strikes hit the earth every second, and in many years, these bolts of fire kill more people than any other kind of weather. But lightning is not something most of us worry about very much.

Ironically, the most destructive single disasters are usually the least surprising. Hurricanes, for example, happen at the same time every year in the same general locations. And yet we are shocked at the devastation, every year. Between official declarations of emergencies, we build and rebuild, upping the ante for the next storm season. By 2010, an estimated 70 percent of Americans will live within a hundred miles of a coast—where hurricanes, floods, and tropical storms are annual rites. Floridians, in particular, live dangerously. But they aren’t alone. Texas and California are the country’s other riskiest states. (The least hazardous are Vermont, Delaware, and Rhode Island. Fabulously boring places.)

Now think back to Patrick Turner, the man who refused to evacuate before Hurricane Katrina even though he had the means to do so. Turner was quite capable of feeling dread when it came to hospitals or doctors. But hurricanes did not move him. Why? For one thing, most of us fear natural threats less than those created by humans. Even though most of the devastation caused by hurricanes
humanmade (due to the overpopulation of the coasts, faulty levees, and depleted wetlands), the direct threat (wind and rain) is natural. If we consider the equation for dread, this makes sense: nuclear and chemical waste are far less familiar to us than weather, and they carry the potential for mass-scale casualties and suffering. If hazards have personalities, nuclear waste is the disheveled man standing on the street corner swearing. No one wants to get near him, regardless of how harmless he is. Hurricanes, on the other hand, are the slow, plodding types that the neighbors will later say looked perfectly harmless.

There is something else we need to understand about Turner. The year before Katrina, he had given in to his children’s pleadings. He had evacuated for Hurricane Ivan. But the experience was traumatic. The traffic jams were horrendous, partly due to poor planning on the part of city and state officials. A trip from New Orleans to Baton Rouge that normally took eighty to ninety minutes took as long as ten to twelve hours. Turner rode with his other daughter all the way to Austin, Texas, in a car jammed with people and possessions, and he vowed never to do it again. Firsthand experience was more powerful than any official warning could be; the palpable risks of evacuating seemed stronger than the abstract risks of staying.

Turner lived a life of small rituals. He went to Mass every day at 8:00
. Every Tuesday, he played golf with his brothers. On Saturday, Williams came over to clean his house. And every Sunday, she took him to the cemetery to pay respects to her mother. They never missed a Sunday. Turner didn’t like the idea of disrupting his routines. The day before Katrina hit, he told his daughter he didn’t want to evacuate because he wanted to be able to go to Mass on Monday morning.

Remember Zedeño’s fog of disbelief after a Boeing 767 smashed into her building on 9/11? That disbelief, a natural and often helpful product of the human brain, sets in well before the crisis. In certain people facing certain threats, the fog can be impenetrable. “It just didn’t adjust in his head” is how Williams puts it.

Elderly people don’t like to evacuate. In 1989, after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, retirees and people over age seventy were least likely to evacuate—regardless of how close they were to the reactor. That’s partly because, even if they have a good means of leaving, older people do not like change, generally speaking. Turner had lived in his house for over three decades. Like his old shotgun house, it was well built, and it had survived many hurricanes. So why wouldn’t it survive this one?

It turned out that Turner’s house did survive. It flooded with five feet of water, but the walls and the roof held strong. It was the man that the hurricane claimed.


When it comes to old-fashioned risks like weather, we often overestimate ourselves. Of the fifty-two people who died during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, for example, 70 percent drowned. And most of them drowned in their cars, which had become trapped in floodwaters. This is a recurring problem in hurricanes. People are overconfident about driving through water, even though they are bombarded with official warnings not to. (This tendency varies, of course, depending on the individual. One study out of the University of Pittsburgh showed that men are much more likely to try to drive through high water than women—and thus more likely to die in the process. But more about the individual profile of a risk taker in Chapter 4.)

Less than one year after Katrina, a research team from the Harvard School of Public Health interviewed 2,029 people who live in high-risk hurricane zones in eight states. They asked them what they would do if government officials said they had to evacuate before a major hurricane. Incredibly, with the images of the Superdome still on rotation on the evening news, one quarter said flat out that they would not leave. An additional 9 percent said they weren’t sure what they would do. So that means a third of people interviewed admitted they may not evacuate before a major storm.

Even more surprising was their reasoning: the number one rationale, given by 68 percent of those surveyed, was that they thought their homes were well built enough to survive a storm. Mobile home owners were no more likely to say they would evacuate. Like campers tucked into polyester tents in the deep woods, we seem to derive a false sense of protection from even the flimsiest shelter. And, as suggested by the early Katrina data, income did not predict behavior. In fact, the groups most likely to say they would ride out the storm were homeowners (39%), whites (41%), and long-term residents (45%).

Even in times of calm, we trend toward arrogance. About 90 percent of drivers think they are safer than the average driver. Most people also think they are less likely than others to get divorced, have heart disease, or get fired. And three out of four baby boomers think they look younger than their peers. People have a tendency to believe that they are, well, superior. Psychologists call this the “Lake Wobegon effect”—after the fictitious Minnesota town invented by Garrison Keillor, who described it as a place “where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

The Lake Wobegon effect may be warped, but it helps us deal. We can process horrible events more readily if we assume we will be exempt from future suffering. Shortly after 9/11, a survey of a thousand Americans found that they thought they had a 21 percent chance of being injured in a terrorist attack within the next year. That’s way too high. But it’s nowhere near as high as the 48 percent chance that they assigned to the rest of us.

Hurricanes are especially tricky because we have to respond to them before things get ugly. We have to evacuate when the skies are clear and blue. Going back to the dread equation, it’s hard to
the violence to come. Without any tangible cues, denial comes easily. But as coastal cities get bigger and bigger, people have to evacuate earlier and earlier. The infrastructure is not set up for a fast exit, so ten-and twenty-hour traffic jams are becoming common—making people even more reluctant to leave on a sunny day, forty-eight to seventy-two hours before the actual storm.

Experts are vulnerable to the same biases, by the way. Subtle cues set a background mood that makes us more or less cautious. The stock market, perhaps the ultimate laboratory for studying the human risk equation, offers a particularly fascinating example. Five years ago, two business-school professors, David Hirshleifer and Tyler Shumway, were curious about what effect the weather has on stock trades. So they gathered weather data for twenty-six international cities from 1982 to 1997. Then they compared stock returns for each city on each day. What they found is remarkable: sunshine strongly correlated with daily stock returns—in ways that couldn’t easily be explained by any other factors. If it was sunny in the morning, stocks were more likely to go up.

Risk analysts call these nuanced emotional judgments “affect”—or, as Slovic puts it, “faint whispers of emotion.” Slovic has tremendous respect for affect. It is at once “wondrous and frightening.” Wondrous because, once upon a time, making decisions based on such subconscious atmospherics would have made great sense. In small communities focused on short-term survival, the weather was an excellent indicator of safety. But in complex financial markets—or dense coastal cities—affect works like a broken compass.

Of course, too much dread can be as problematic as too little. Coming less than a month after Katrina, and striking many of the same places, Hurricane Rita hit a profound resonance in the cultural psyche. For a brief period, the worst-case scenario was easy to imagine. Though only 1.25 million people were told to evacuate, 2.5 million did so. A carefully planned evacuation quickly devolved into mass frustration. One-hundred-mile-long traffic jams clogged the freeways around Houston. A spokesman for the State Transportation Department, Mike Cox, told reporters that no one had predicted how many Texans would be so frightened by Katrina. “Not one of our fifteen thousand employees is a psychologist,” he said, nicely summarizing the big problem.

The Man Without Dread

It’s tempting to throw our hands up and conclude that people are simply irrational, a lost cause. But dread is not so easily dismissed. In some cases, it sends us reeling, making life less safe and less productive. But other times, like so many of our disaster reflexes, it is the wisdom of ages imbedded right there in our heads.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio encountered a baffling patient in the 1970s at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. The patient, whom he calls Elliot to protect his identity, was an accomplished businessman, father, and husband until he developed a brain tumor. The tumor, which was the size of a small orange when it was discovered, was successfully removed through surgery. And Elliot appeared cured: he could talk, move around, and remember things just as he had before. He took an IQ test and scored in the superior range.

Elliot was rationalism personified. He
as Damasio puts it, but he didn’t
. Ah, finally a human with 20/20 risk perception, right? Wrong. Elliot seemed normal in so many ways. But the more Damasio talked with him, the more the neurologist realized that something was missing. Elliot relayed the story of his life like a historian describing a long-ago tragedy. Listening to him talk, Damasio found himself getting more upset than Elliot. And Elliot’s life was a mess. He could not seem to function in the world. He had trouble making decisions and tended to fixate on details that didn’t really matter. He couldn’t plan the day, much less the week. He got fired from his job and then divorced. He lost his life savings in a dubious business venture that his friends had warned him was doomed.

Damasio studied Elliot’s brain and saw that the tumor had damaged both frontal lobes—and especially the right frontal lobe. Everything else was intact. Then Damasio found twelve other patients with prefrontal damage similar to Elliot’s. Every single patient exhibited the same combination of indecision and emotional flatness.

The more Damasio learned, the more he came to appreciate so-called irrational sentiments. Emotions and feelings were not impediments to reason; they were integral. “Reason may not be as pure as most of us think it is or wish it were,” he wrote. “At their best, feelings point us in the proper direction, take us to the appropriate place in a decision-making space, where we may put the instruments of logic to good use.”

Once we factor in emotion, then, the human risk equation is actually more sophisticated, not less. Damasio’s discoveries convinced me that the way for people to get better at judging risk is not to avoid emotion—or wish it away—but to capitalize upon it. Dread, properly tapped, can save our lives.

Secure Your Own Mask First

Dennis Mileti has been studying how to warn people against threats like hurricanes and earthquakes for more than thirty years. He knows how to do it, he says. That’s not the problem. The problem is getting people—in particular governments—to take his advice.

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