The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--And Why by Amanda Ripley. I read this right after our tsunami scare last month so it resonated a little differently with me than it might have had I read it at some other time. The author mentions that the tsunami that killed 61 people in Hawaii in 1960 was generated by a huge earthquake off the coast of Chile (sound familiar?). At the time, we had the technology in place to deal with such a threat-the warning sirens all sounded in plenty of time to take action. Unfortunately, the general population was not sure what the sirens meant-was it a signal to stay alert for additional information, a warning to evacuate, or were they testing new equipment? (This theme of government preparedness not meshing with public response is a common one throughout Ripley's book). With that in mind, I was quite proud of how well Hawaii seemed to handle this last threat. From our little corner of the world, everyone seemed pretty well-informed and ready to take action if needed. Some people complained that the officials here made too big a deal out of something that turned out to be nothing, but I'll take that scenario over the alternative. Also, this was a good test run to see if everything worked the way it should have so that we have a better idea what to do, or not do, next time.
So, that said, the title of this book pretty much sums it up-why are certain people better in disaster situations than others? Ripley talks to survivors from several disasters, covering both well-known disasters, like the bombing of the twin towers and Hurricane Katrina, as well as some that many people probably don't know about or might not remember, like the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire near Cincinnati or the frequent stampedes that occur during pilgrimages to Mecca.
Some survivors were saved by their own cool heads and decisive action, others were saved because of someone else's good instincts. All the stories are interesting, but there was one that had me in tears throughout its entire telling. The story of Roger Olian, the man who jumped into the Potomac River on January 13, 1982, to try to save the survivors of the Boeing 737 that had just crashed into the freezing waters, is amazing. Between reading about Roger's reasons for jumping into the water and imagining what it must have been like for all the people involved, survivors and rescuers alike, it took me quite a while to get through this story because I kept having to stop to dry my eyes.
One thing that I walked away with after reading this is that, contrary to what you might think, people generally behave pretty well in a disaster. Stampedes aside, people are generally calm and polite, sometimes to their own detriment. Ripley explores these reactions and the psychology and biology behind them. Do you know what causes panic? I mean, specifically? It's not just being scared or feeling like you are in danger. According to a paper published by Enrico L. Quarantelli in 1954, "panic occurs if and only if three other conditions are present."
What? You thought I was just going to tell you what they are? If you want to know, read the book! Haha!
Oh, okay, I'll give you one, but that's it! Now, stop looking at me like that. Okay, so, one condition that must be present in order for panic to set in: A feeling that you might be trapped, not the knowledge that you are trapped, but that you might be trapped. Interesting, huh?
Speaking of panic, I would like to pass along some of the best advice I have ever received. If you ever are in a situation where you feel panic starting to set in, DON'T WASTE ANY ENERGY PANICKING. Let me say that again. Your mind will probably already be racing with what you might have to do to get out of your situation, and you may, indeed, have to exert a lot of energy to get out of whatever frightening situation you are in. So: DON'T WASTE ANY ENERGY PANICKING. As you may have guessed, I was in a very near-panic state when this advice was dished out to me, and it was the best thing the person who was with me could have said. So, this is also good advice to give to others. Saying things like, "Don't panic," provides a perfect opportunity for the other person to justify his or her panic. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN DON'T PANIC?? WE'RE OUT HERE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN, I CAN'T SWIM, I CAN'T SEE, AND I'M PROBABLY GOING TO DIIIIIIEEEE! I THINK THIS IS THE PERFECT TIME TO PANIC!" This is not the response you want. I'm just sayin'.
Anyway...this might sound like a potentially depressing read. I know that as I was reading about a lot of these survivors, many of them heros, I knew that my instincts and theirs are not the same (in case you hadn't already gathered that from the paragraph above). You may read with a sense of doom, thinking, Oh man, I'm screwed if I ever find myself in a disaster!; but the good news is that a lot of the things that make people respond well in disasters are things that you can change in yourself. For example, you probably can't change the size of your hippocampus, which plays a large role in determining how likely you are to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); but you can have a plan in place for what to do in the event of a fire in your home or workplace and actually run drills until everyone involved is comfortable and knows what to do in that situation. If you don't think that's a big deal, read about Rick Rescorla, the head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the largest tenant in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. There were 13 Morgan Stanley employees who didn't make it out of the building, but there were 2,687 who did.
One last thing, and I will let you go. The book mentions the Carnegie Hero Fund, which was set up by Andrew Carnegie in 1904 to provide monetary assistance to civilian heros and their families. Carnegie figured that if someone was injured or killed performing a heroic duty, their family shouldn't be put through financial hardships as a result. There have been over 9,000 heros recognized since 1904, and you can perform a search if you want to look for heros in your neck of the woods or search for heroic acts in a certain year. Of course, I scared myself silly reading about all the heroic water rescues that have been performed in Hawaii over the years! You can also nominate a hero.