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Disaster Myths and Realities

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1 Disaster Myths and Realities
Tricia Wachtendorf Disaster Research Center / University of Delaware Research Funding Provided by the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, the National Science Foundation, and the Public Entity Risk Institute

2 Disaster Myth A disaster is simply a result of physical events and leaves everyone in its path equally vulnerable REALITY: In fact, disasters are social events that leave some groups more vulnerable to impacts than others

3 For Example In New York City on 9/11, workers on the upper floors of the towers were more vulnerable than those who worked on lower floors; people with disabilities who were unable to use the stairs were more vulnerable than those who were able-bodied During Hurricane Katrina, low income citizens without a vehicle had more difficulty evacuating than those Gulf Coast residents who did own vehicles; renters were at the mercy of their landlords regarding the extent to which mitigation actions had been taken

4 Disaster Myth Disaster response comes down to the actions of isolated heroes in our society REALITY: Disasters involve a multi-organizational response 2 dante’s peak clips 9/11 organizations and small roles

5 For example The response on 9/11 involved participation of a broad range of local, state, and federal agencies, large non-profit organization and local community based groups, large corporations and small businesses, and many, many individuals citizens.

6 Disaster Myth We can expect widespread role abandonment by emergency responders REALITY: Research shows that emergency responders do not generally abandon their responsibilities, particularly after assurances that their families are safe Volcano role abandonment

7 For example Firefighters continued to converged to the World Trade Center, even after calls had been issued to remain at the firehouses. It was actually difficult to convince workers at Ground Zero to leave because many were committed to the job or to first rescuing potential survivors and later recovering the remains of those who had perished. Rather than role abandonment, we saw people coming from across US to provide help after 9/11

8 Disaster Myth We can expect widespread panic during disasters
REALITY: Panic (as anti-social irrational behavior, not feelings of anxiety) is rare in disasters Dante’s peak town hall 9/11 people jogging

9 For Example It is often more difficult to get people to leave an area than deal with people fleeing from it People do not panic unless their avenue of escape is very rapidly closing (possible on some of the floors in the Twin Towers where fires were most intense) and even then conduct is orderly until last moments Fear and running away from imminent danger is not illogical. It is rational behavior to steer clear from danger.

10 Disaster Myth We can expect widespread looting, price gouging, and other anti-social behavior REALITY: While anti-social behavior does sometimes occur, it is not as widespread as is often portrayed. People, in fact, exhibit pro-social behavior in disasters Volcano looting

11 For Example Appropriating behavior (people taking necessary items for survival or for the response) is sometimes mistaken as looting Crime rates actually go down in the immediate impact period following disasters Many people act to help their fellow citizens during a disaster and instead offer to others what little resources they may have

12 Disaster Myth We should immediately send any assistance we can as help of all forms will be necessary REALITY: Money is the best form of assistance; other assistance can be extremely helpful, but must take into account actual needs and when those goods or services are most needed. Any provision of assistance should also consider how to best ensure that those resources will be identified, sorted, and distributed during an intense response.

13 For Example Money can be redirected into the local economy and be used to purchase goods even as needs change over the course of the response/recovery. Those requesting assistance should be clear to instruct what type of volunteers are needed, where they should converge to, what types of goods are needed, how they should be packed and labeled, and where goods should be sent.

14 Disaster Myth Disaster response is solely the responsibility of government agencies REALITY: Disaster response often involves extensive public engagement Includes a full range of individuals, groups, agencies, and businesses Established, expanding, extending, emergent

15 E.L. Quarantelli & Russell Dynes outline the different types of organizations in disasters in their DRC Typology: Structures Old New Old Established Expanding e.g. fire or police e.g. Salvation Army or American Red Cross Tasks New Extending Emergent e.g. a bicycle courier e.g. a bucket brigade company that starts to deliver food to checkpoints

16 For example Private vessels played a critical role in evacuating commuters from Manhattan on 9/11. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, individual boat owners searched for neighbors they believed had not evacuated and were stranded.

17 Disaster Myth Centralized decision-making and response is always appropriate REALITY: Complex disasters necessitate decentralized decision making structures and networks Communication and coordination are better than command and control

18 Command and Control incorrectly assumes (T. E. Drabek & D. A
Command and Control incorrectly assumes (T.E. Drabek & D. A. McEntire): Government is the only responder Information from outside official channels is inaccurate Widespread role abandonment Standard operating procedures will always function Citizens are inept, passive, and irrational Society will breakdown Ad hoc emergence is counter productive

19 Disaster Myth Having a solid disaster plan ensures an effective response REALITY: Planning is crucial, but so is a flexible organization the recognizes that some form of improvisation may be necessary. Planning should be seen as a process, not as an activity that creates a document that will never need to be revisited.

20 The artistry of disaster response
Just as great improvisation in jazz music involves more than “playing from the heart” or “raw talent,” great emergency management involves more than “common sense” or “just doing what needs to be done.”

21 For more information, contact:
Tricia Wachtendorf, Ph.D Assistant Professor / Department of Sociology Core Faculty / Disaster Research Center Disaster Research Center University of Delaware Newark, DE 19716 Phone: Webpage:

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