Dealing with disaster

Dear colleagues,

Are you prepared for a big-time emergency? Maybe you think it could never happen to you. But it might.

Imagine this: you're on a routine flight. You're reading a magazine or listening to your iPod, not paying much attention to anything else. Then, just after takeoff, the plane crashes.

Most people don't realise that in serious aircraft accidents, half of the passengers survive. What you do next could make the difference between life and death. Do you wait for an announcement? Do you use your mobile to ring your nearest and dearest? Do you grope for your carry-on luggage?

What you should do is go as quickly as possible to the nearest exit and get out, because if you delay you're at risk of dying from explosion and fire. But in actual emergencies, many people become frozen or engage in time-wasting activities like searching for personal belongings.

If you want to know more about what to do in an emergency, read Amanda Ripley's book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. It is a delightful way to learn about such a forbidding topic. Ripley makes the subject come alive by telling stories about individuals, weaving in descriptions about scientific findings along the way. This is a standard popularisation technique but not that easy to pull off. Ripley uses it with great skill.

Ripley covers three crucial elements in disaster response: denial, deliberation and the decisive moment. Psychological denial is very common. Ripley tells of Elia Zedeño, who was working in one of the World Trade Towers on 11 September 2001, and who entered a zombie-like state but, due to help from colleagues and strangers, was able to escape before the building collapsed. Another of Ripley's stories is about Meaher Patrick Turner, an elderly resident of New Orleans who in 2005 refused to leave his home, despite pleas from his family. Turner died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In relation to deliberation - the second element in disaster response - Ripley tells stories about fear, resilience and following the crowd. In relation to the decisive moment, she tells about panic, paralysis and heroism, each with fascinating personal stories.

If you want a quick take-home message, you can turn to the appendix for six ways to increase your odds of survival: cultivate resilience, get to know your neighbours, lower your anxiety levels, lose weight, calculate your odds, and train your brain. But these won't mean that much unless you take to heart the implications of Ripley's analysis. One of her key messages is that most people don't care and don't prepare. For them, a disaster is literally unthinkable.

Ripley is highly sympathetic to all the characters whose stories she recounts. She recognises that every response occurs for a reason. Paralysis can have benefits when people are confronted with a ferocious attacker: if you pretend to be dead, you may be spared, just like a mouse caught by a cat. Ripley tells about how this very response saved one of the students who was a potential target in the Virginia Tech massacre. He was the only one in his class who wasn't shot. However, in other sorts of disasters, such as plane crashes, paralysis can be fatal.

Ripley says that there is a big gap in most emergency response procedures. Too often, planners focus on what the authorities and leaders need to do and then expect everyone else to follow instructions. Ripley notes that the key lesson from the 2005 terrorist attacks in London was that "emergency plans had been designed to meet the needs of emergency officials, not regular people".

Ripley supports a different approach: train everyone in emergency skills, and get people to practise those skills. To illustrate the potential of people's direct action, she gives the example of United flight 93 on 9/11, in which the passengers organised to thwart the terrorists. But despite this and other such cases, nearly all terrorism planning positions citizens as passive respondents to messages from experts.

Practice is the core of responding appropriately in an emergency. Rick Rescorla worked for Morgan Stanley, an investment firm with offices in the World Trade Center. As head of security for the large firm, he insisted on frequent full drills, unannounced, despite interruptions to meetings with important clients. On 11 September 2001, Rescorla's preparations paid off - all but a handful of Morgan Stanley's 2700 personnel survived. Rescorla died trying to rescue a few who lagged behind.

If your inclination is to leave emergency planning to others, you won't be alone. Personally, I will now pay more attention to building exits and to emergency instructions on flights. I'll try to think of ways to improve the way I tell students in my classes about emergency procedures, as mandated at the beginning of every semester. And I'll pay more attention to people's responses during evacuations of building 19.

Ripley doesn't mention the biggest potential disaster of all: nuclear war. I remember drills in primary school back in the 1950s. A neighbour built a fallout shelter. Since those years at the height of the cold war, preparation for nuclear war has faded from public consciousness, although tens of thousands of nuclear weapons still exist. Nuclear war has truly become unthinkable.

But fear not. Learning about responses to other sorts of disasters is bound to help. Ripley says that the more people know how to respond, the less fearful they become. Check out her website ( for relevant advice.

15 March 2010


I thank Caroline Dick, Michael Matteson, Susheela Pandian and Jenn Phillips for helpful comments on a draft.

Go to

Brian's comments to colleagues

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website