Four talks on disaster risk reduction, no. 2
Disasters Create Their Own Mythology
Few phenomena are as easily misunderstood as disasters. As a result, there is a large catalogue of misconceptions that remain dearly held and reluctantly abandoned. Now one would suppose that the experts and professionals in the disasters field (first responders, emergency managers, medical specialists, and so on) would be the first to try and dispel the misconceptions, but this is not always the case. Such people are also members of the general public, and consumers of mass media products. Many of them have not been disabused.
For years, an eminent Belgian medical expert, Dr Claude De Ville De Goyet, has been conducting a campaign—I nearly said "waging a war"—to get the mass media to renounce its faith in misconceptions about disaster. Dr De Ville, or "Doctor Claude", as he is affectionately known by his many admirers (of whom I am one) is not a lightweight player in this field: he is retired from a distinguished career as the World Health Organisation's western hemisphere leader on disaster response, courtesy of the Pan American Health Organisation. And yet even the supposedly responsible mass media, the New York Times, Washington Post and so on, were not interested in responding to Dr Claude's challenge and getting the story right. Evidently, they view the stereotyped story as more attractive to their readers
For convenience, the misconceptions are often referred to as 'myths'. This is reasonable according the the Oxford English Dictionary's second definition of the term, namely: "a widely held but false belief". However, one should bear in mind that many of the misconceptions are better described as statistical inaccuracies rather than outright falsehoods.
My empirical research suggests that the 'myth' which is most dearly and tenaciously held is that "panic is common and widespread in disasters." Why should this be? In my previous talk I discussed the role of theory in "making sense of apparent chaos". If one is unaware of the available body of theory, and thus unable to interpret the complexity of disaster, all that is left is chaos. And chaos is easily equated with panic, especially if one doesn't adopt a particularly rigorous definition of the latter.
The word 'panic' comes from the Greek Pānikos, of Pan, the goat-like shepherd god. In 490 BC at the battle of Marathon he is said to have shouted so loud that the echoes of his voice as it rebounded from the surrounding mountains convinced the Persians that the Athenian forces were much more numerous than was actually the case, causing tumultuous dread to proliferate among the invaders. Pānikon deima became synonymous with a sudden accession of fear by travellers in lonely places.
In the modern world of science, the trouble with the term 'panic' is that it has several definitions and, as they do not fit well together, it is easily misinterpreted. Sociologists see panic as a social reaction, or more properly an asocial one, involving the spontaneous withdrawal of social contact in favour of an innate self-protective reaction to the sudden manifestation of apparent danger. I am sorry if this definition sounds as if it were written as part of an insurance policy, but the whole concept of 'panic' is hedged around by controversy, and it pays to be cautious when discussing it. There does not have to be a real danger; it is sufficient that one be perceived. The 'self-protective behaviour' need not have a positive, tangible result: indeed, panic can easily lead the panicker into danger, rather than out of it. Moreover, despite its connection with the sudden abandonment of social relations, rather paradoxically, panic can be contagious and result in mob behaviour.
The other group of scientists to have studied panic extensively is, of course, the psychologists. They tend to see it as much more of an innate phenomenon, and as a result they regard it as more common and widespread in the general population than do the sociologists. The one bridge between the two camps is the idea of panic as the sudden—one hopes temporary—suspension of rational judgement in favour of spontaneous reaction. Sociologists have tended to study panic (something they have done for sixty years) in the context of entrapment and flight. The classic situation is a crowded indoor setting in which fire breaks out, and the exits are locked or restricted.
In 1987 Professor Norris Johnson chose panic as the subject of his presidential address to the American Sociological Association. He argued, not only that panic as a common and widespread phenomenon is a misconception, but that panic itself is a myth. Other researchers with expertise in the field believe that, in order to make a point, Professor Johnson went "over the top" and panic is rare but not a chimera.
I would tend to agree. At about 6 p.m. on the 14th February 1981 I was in central Naples in a hotel just off the central square called Piazza Garibaldi. I locked my room and walked down the stairs to street level. Half way down, I was thrown against the wall. I staggered out into the street and came face-to-face with an extraordinary scene. Red faced people were howling like wolves or bawling like angry infants. There was a rumble and part of a building collapsed into the square in a cloud of dust. I joined about 200 people who were desperately running, no one knew where or why. After a few seconds I stopped and started to reason. It was the largest aftershock to follow the 23rd November 1980 magnitude 6.8 southern Italian earthquake.
In reality, few people had given way to hysterics, and they were rapidly and competently dealt with by others who restrained them and restored calm. Panic does occur, and in this case I was a party to it. However, the sociologists have definitively established that it is a rare and transient phenomenon.
In 2003 fire broke out in a heavily overcrowded nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. A disturbing film was taken of the entire incident, which killed 100 people, almost a quarter of those who were present. The film is very graphic and the company that shot it was later sued for $30 million for apparently obstructing the entrance during the evacuation of the locale. This is a classic example of the 'funnel effect', in which people file in ever increasing numbers through an exit that is too small for them. Initially, panic was conspicuous by its absence. It only occurred, briefly, when, in effect "the game was up" and the exit was blocked. The same is true of many other well-known incidents in which lives were lost because evacuation became progressively less easy.
So in reality panic is much less common than is a rational reaction to danger. However, the classic misconceived attitude is that, faced with an urgent predicament, "people will panic", and this is used to restrict the supply of information. Indeed, it is assumed—quite wrongly—that if people are told the truth, they will become so acutely anxious that they will lose their reason.
At 9.45 p.m. on 13th January 2012 the Costa Concordia, the seventh largest passenger ship afloat, struck a rock off the island of Giglio in the Tuscan Archipelago of central Italy. Holed, listing and without power she eventually beached on the island. Of the 4,252 people on board, all but 32 were rescued. It was very fortunate that the Concordia did not sink in the deep marine trench adjacent to where she beached, which would have led to heavy loss of life. When the ship hit the rock there was a booming noise accompanied by rapid deceleration. Loose objects and furniture were thrown violently around, the lights went out and emergency lighting came on. The first action by officials on board was to tell passengers to return to their cabins "while an electrical fault was fixed"—pure expedient fantasy. Fortunately, very few of them obeyed this order, which would have put them at risk of entrapment and drowning, and most of them put on their life-jackets and mustered close to the life-rafts. Evacuation was technically demanding, as during it the ship listed more and more. Nonetheless, passengers and crew reached the shore and remained calm. The order to return to the cabins was a typical example of one given in the interests of stopping a notional state of panic from developing. In reality, people tend to react more rationally if they have realistic information: they are, if anything, more likely to panic without it.
Incidentally, one of the earliest chronicles of mass panic in modern times was the supposed reaction to a drama based on H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, as recited in a radio broadcast by his namesake, Orson Welles. A gullible public in New Jersey were supposed to have believed that the Martians had landed and it was every man—or woman—for himself—or herself. The context of this curious event was provided by the gathering clouds of a World War, a situation in which public anxiety was almost universal. Although it is estimated that 1.2 million people "were frightened" by the story, few of them did anything other than pick up the telephone in order to seek official confirmation of whether or not "something was happening". The mass panic was almost entirely an invention of the newspapers, which were locked in ferocious competition with the radio stations.
But the myth of panic has proved to be remarkably enduring. After the Madrid train bombings of 2003 the Secretary General of an illustrious and ancient British learned society went on television to argue for more secrecy in emergency planning. His rationale was that "people will panic". Besides the fact that this gentleman was a physicist, apparently with no special knowledge of social science, he was merely retailing a shibboleth. So in emergency planning please let us have more openness and less mythology.
The second great misconception is that large disasters inevitably cause epidemics, especially if dead bodies lie around unburied: they are supposed to poison water wells, transmit diseases to the living, contaminate people with their putrefaction, and so on. With an additional eye to the disruption of medical care caused by disaster, after the December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the world's mass media confidently predicted that there would be more deaths from disease in the dozen or so affected countries than from the tsunami itself. It was not so.
Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of the western countries effectively exporting their national health systems to Asia. They set them up on the beach-heads and they tended to the sick and wounded. It reminded one of an earthquake in Turkey in which, hours after the event, the international community geared up to send cohorts of doctors to help out: but 2,300 extra Turkish doctors were already at work in the affected area.
The fear of epidemics often leads to hasty and indiscriminate burial. After the 2001 earthquake in El Salvador, the mayor of the town of Santa Tecla authorised a 200-metre-long trench to be dug, and into it bodies and body parts were hastily and indiscriminately flung. When this has been done in the humid tropics, the trenches have sometimes filled up with water before they could be filled with earth, such that the bodies floated away out of them. In Thailand after the 2005 tsunami, indiscriminate burial ended in the need for exhumation and identification of the bodies that had been so hastily and thoughtlessly stashed away.
Indiscriminate burial because of the fear of epidemics has a variety of potential negative consequences. Widows cannot obtain death certificates and may have to wait years before they can receive their husbands' transferrable pensions. Family members cannot grieve and mourn properly; thus are the living demoralised. Causes of death are not properly established and death tolls are not accurately compiled. Excellent opportunities for fraud and chicanery present themselves, and all because of a purely notional fear of epidemics.
The Haiti earthquake of January 2010 killed so many people that the death toll was never properly established. Courtyards and streets were piled shoulder-high with dead bodies. But, although there were serious outbreaks of disease in Port au Prince, they were not caused by the unburied bodies. Indeed, Haiti was the first occasion—after many lost opportunities—in which the competent international authorities (leaders of the Red Cross and so on) stood up in front of the cameras and microphones and categorically stated that epidemics were not going to happen because of any failure to bury human bodies quickly enough.
There are many 'myths' and misconceptions about disasters: in fact, I estimate that at least sixty are in common circulation. For instance, one is that the deadly spores of anthrax appear in the form of a white powder. There were occasions in the early 2000s when mayhem was generated when people found white powders in toilets and other public facilities. As anthrax is greyish-brown or colourless, they were probably looking at talcum powder or cocaine. But they all led to reactions worthy of the response to all-out biological warfare.
There is, of course, a well-known genre of film noire known as the 'disaster movie'. My favourite example is Dante's Peak, the story of how a cataclysmic volcanic eruption affects a small American community. I like it because it features as many as five incompatible styles of volcanic activity, as well as a litany of sociological inaccuracies that is enough to make it a textbook example of exactly what does not happen in disaster.
The Hollywood version of catastrophe is one in which the impact of an extreme event spontaneously unmasks the savage within each of the people involved. They all respond with violence and individualism. Social relations and "civilisation" break down or are summarily dispensed with. If the situation is redeemed, it is the work of a spontaneous leader, a hero in the classic sense of the term, who single-handedly restores order out of chaos.
Unfortunately, the Hollywood model is far more than a fantasy of the cinema. To begin with, it is equally beloved of television. One recalls Woody Allen's dictum that "In Beverly Hills they don't throw their garbage away, they make it into television shows." Worse still, the Hollywood model is also beloved of civil authorities world-wide.
Now it stands to reason that certain parts of the plans and arrangements for dealing with emergencies need to remain confidential. This is true, even though no evidence has ever been presented to suggest that terrorists go down to their local public libraries in order to study emergency plans and thus make their actions more effective—they don't need to do anything of the sort. However, there is an uneasy relationship between secrecy and inefficiency. In fact, secrecy is beloved of those who fear being unmasked because their plans and actions are inadequate, or because they have failed to do their duty. In this respect, secrecy is highly convenient. Hence, the notions that "people will panic" or "terrorists will profit" are great excuses for secrecy—but not for any rational response to hazards and threats.
In the 1960s and 70s the sociologist Alan Barton wrote cogently about the therapeutic community. In this, disaster brings out the best in people: self-sacrifice, abnegation, social consensus, laudable values, and so on. He was right, of course, at least with respect to the early stages of a major emergency (although in the later stages the old divisions in society often reassert themselves with a vengeance).
People do not flee from disaster areas, they converge upon them. Rather than being deserted, the streets of devastated cities throng with relief workers, citizens trying to make the best of things, news reporters, relatives, volunteers and onlookers. Where official order has broken down, perhaps as a result of damage to structures or decimation of institutions, a different order evolves spontaneously to replace it. People discover new, socially valuable roles that they can fulfil. Hence, disaster is not always a completely negative experience: some people may find their inner selves through it; others may rediscover long-lost social values.
So, in fact, disaster can bring out what is best in people, and it often does so. However, in a talk about 'myths' and misconceptions, it would be wrong to imply that the darker side of humanity disappears completely as soon as the earth quakes or the torrential rains arrive. One of the most contentious of the misconceptions is that which relates to looting.
After Hurricane Katrina had passed through New Orleans at the end of August 2005, a pair of photographs circulated around the Internet. Indeed, in current parlance, they "went viral". They showed people up to their armpits in water, carrying small quantities of food and drink. But one photograph, of two white people, had a caption that suggested that they had "found" the food and drink. The other, virtually identical, showed a black person who had "looted a grocery store". Such is journalistic perception and prejudice. Looting did take place in New Orleans, albeit on a much reduced scale compared to what was reported, and, bizarrely, some of it was carried out by the city's police (who were predominantly white).
Katrina fulfilled perfectly the definition of disaster as a "class-quake". Perhaps it is not coincident that New Orleans is the North American city of carnival. In carnival, for a day the king becomes a servant and the servant is king. Whereas the deprived black citizens of the Lower Ninth Ward did not find themselves to be suddenly rich and powerful (indeed, some researchers claim to have evidence that the hurricane was followed by forced migration), nonetheless it was singular that Bangladesh donated $25,000 to the United States' relief appeal.
Incidentally, one effect of Katrina on the academic study of disasters was to give a massive boost to black studies and cultural investigations in this field, both of which had roundly been neglected since the pioneering work in the 1960s by the eminent black sociologist William Anderson. The most startling conclusion of these studies, and of Spike Lee's film about Katrina, When the Levees Broke, is that some black people did not feel that they were even citizens of the United States, a devastating indictment in a country in which school children salute the flag and pledge allegiance every morning.
So looting does occur in disasters, even if it is not always what it seems to be. I believe that to take place it needs preconditions, especially in terms of the existence of pre-existing fault-lines in society: particularly, latent social instability, lack of respect for authority and lack of faith in institutions. Moreover, although disasters tend, in their early stages, to increase the degree of social and moral consensus, this does not mean that criminal elements simply melt away. Indeed, organised crime may see disaster as the golden opportunity to profit from chaos.
This begs the question of the role of the 'black', or informal, economy. It is estimated that about 20 per cent of the world's economy is either informal or illegal. In monetary terms, slightly less than half of this consists of the international trade in narcotics; the rest is made up of trade in armaments, people trafficking, prostitution and illegal gambling activities. Moreover, about half of legitimate trade is cycled through the world's 78 tax havens, and the majority of financial transactions take place for the purposes of short-term speculation. Hence, the small-scale criminal or tax-avoider has some pretty strong competition from the world's millionaires and billionaires.
In disaster, the black economy is a Janus with two faces. It provides work and income to people who would otherwise be destitute, but it deprives the authorities of the revenues needed to fund risk-reduction measures. Moreover, its activities may undermine safety and security and debilitate recovery measures. In Phuket, after the 2005 tsunami, it was estimated that 70 per cent of the local economy was informal. This could not be condemned totally, as it kept so many of the inhabitants alive. But nevertheless, we should be moving towards greater, more honest and transparent governance and greater legitimate public participation in risk reduction activities.
I would now like to change tack and talk about the medical side of disasters. My own studies of earthquakes are tending to suggest that women are disadvantaged with respect to men. They suffer a greater death toll and a heavier burden of physical and psychiatric morbidity. This predicament badly needs investigating further, and many opportunities to do so have been lost to researchers' ignorance or indifference, or at least to an incompatible set of priorities.
In part, problems like this could be reduced by a more efficient medical response to sudden-impact disasters. Instead we find measures such as mass vaccination and sanitary cordons, which waste resources, restrict legitimate initiatives and do nothing to ensure the health of survivors. 'Blanket' measures of this kind are seldom likely to be effective: there are too many ways around them. Yet they remain popular.
Assistance that is indiscriminate or ill-thought-out is the bane of disaster management. In the month after the Armenian earthquake of 1988, 500 tonnes of medicines arrived at Yerevan Airport. Sixteen per cent of them had passed their 'use-by' date. Very few of them were in any way appropriate to the pathologies that had to be treated after a major earthquake. Almost none had explanations in Armenian or Russian of what they were. The net result of this was a month spent vainly trying to catalogue the supplies and then a considerable problem of how to dispose of them. It reminds me that Baroness De Souza once told me that, in Guatemala City after the 1976 earthquake, she saw crates of medicines marked 'not to be used after August 1934'.
Disasters are usually occasions for the outpouring of solidarity. This is all too frequently indiscriminate or badly thought out. For instance, donations of used clothes have included bikinis, dinner jackets, high-heeled shoes, or simply the surplus production of the fashion industry. Apart from the useless garments, local shopkeepers have begged the authorities not to distribute the clothes and ruin their trade. But is this solidarity, or is it dumping? Although the therapeutic community may dominate the local scene, it may not extend quite so readily to the international donors. Fortunately, as experience has mounted, donations have become more effective and more focussed, but this problem has certainly not gone away.
In part it is encouraged by the dilemma of what to do with monetary donations. On the one hand, there is nothing as flexible and appropriate as cash, providing it is used appropriately to stimulate local economic activity and provide welfare where it is genuinely needed. But there are too many occasions on which the money has disappeared into the pockets of the rich and unscrupulous, leaving the disadvantaged survivors destitute. Yet mechanisms to counteract this do exist and can be made use of, and so, for the most part, cash remains a better option than goods.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2005 engendered the greatest outpouring of monetary solidarity ever. Four and a half billion dollars were collected in donations at the same time as a UN-backed appeal for $30 million to help the destitute in refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan, failed to reach its target. In the world's media, the Darfur situation was a poor relation to the tsunami-wracked beaches of the Indian Ocean.
The tsunami rolled across the holiday beaches of the Western tourists, although not exclusively so. In the mass media of the world's richer countries lent this a sense of immediacy that most Asian disasters cannot emulate, hence the high level of donation. It confirmed the observation, first made decades earlier, that by shining the light of publicity—or not—the mass media can turn solidarity on or off like a tap, irrespective of needs on the ground.
There is a small but cohesive body of academic literature on the behaviour of the mass media in disaster. It concludes that the role of the media is powerful but imprecise. Researchers working in this field appear to suffer from the same malady as disaster managers: they cannot decide whether the media are allies (or at least potential allies) or the devil incarnate. The consensus is that they are a bit of both.
Irrespective of the differences between print media, radio and television, there have traditionally been two kinds of reporting from disaster areas. One is relatively responsible and the journalists involved strive to paint an accurate picture of what is going on. It seems that one cannot expect them to be entirely wise and knowledgeable about disasters, for there is very little sense that journalists as a group want to become expert about disaster. However, with certain limitations, they do their best.
The other group is completely slapdash and will retail all the usual misconceptions without making any effort to confirm or deny them. One gets the impression that their communiques were written in the pub, not on the fault line, and it is probably true. This usually underlines the distinction between the 'quality' and 'tabloid', or 'gutter', press.
My research on the world media's reaction to the Haiti earthquake of 2010 turned up a new and disturbing phenomenon. Politically motivated websites are now reporting the news selectively in order deliberately to distort it in order to support a particular political stance. While it is true that party newspapers have done this for centuries, there is something particularly sinister and insidious about the current fashion to use the Internet to propagate distortions.
Generally, the rise of 'citizen journalism' through Facebook, Twitter and Co. is regarded by researchers as a good thing. However, it should always be borne in mind that this exceptionally fluid and amateur form of disseminating news is also the perfect vehicle for propagating rumour and 'myths' about disaster.
So we live, as the Chinese sage so equivocally said, in "interesting times". After sixty years of intensive study, vast improvements in the speed and efficiency of communication, and the steady march of progress in education, the 'myths' and misconceptions about disaster are still alive and well. Some of them are liable to be crushed by the steamroller of truth, while others are gaining traction.
In conclusion, I would say that modern disasters offer particularly fertile ground for the spread of information. But information is not knowledge, still less wisdom. We should be very careful about what we plant in that ground.