Friday, 17 May 2013

Talk no. 1: There is Nothing More Practical than a Theoretical Approach to Disasters

Four Talks on Disaster Risk Reduction, no. 1
There is Nothing More Practical than a Theoretical Approach to Disasters

I am perhaps unusual in that I can fix the beginning of my interest in disasters to the nearest tenth of a second. It was the evening of Sunday, 23rd November 1980 at 19.34 hours and 52.8 seconds, local time, when it all started. Instrumental seismology is the source of that perhaps rather spurious accuracy. I was a passenger in an express train that was slowing down to stop at Pompei (that's modern Pompei, not the archaeological site) on route to Taranto, southern Italy, where it never arrived. The following edited extract from my diary describes what followed:-

"As we drew near to Pompei the train began to sway and shudder sideways. It slowed, but continued swaying and trembling, seeming to hang poised above the rails. A few seconds later it came crashing down again and again in a series of bone-jarring oscillations. Without speaking, we clung to the luggage racks. From the darkness outside came the sound of tens of thousands of voices screaming, shouting and crying. Meanwhile, the train drifted to a stop at Pompei station, which was in total darkness.

"Outside, there was a furious commotion. Car headlights swept the sky, horns blared, tyres squealed; there were more shouts and screams. Groups of people came running across the railway tracks, seeking refuge away from the shadow of tall buildings. We sat in the carriage, bewildered and alarmed. After twenty minutes, when the noise had begun to die away, I clambered down from the train. On the platform of Pompei station, a dense crowd of people stood in the moonlight around the signal cabin, where the station-master was vainly trying to establish contact with the rest of the railway system. He tried number after number on the telephone and pulled lever after lever on the signal frame, but the equipment was dead or unresponsive. The crowd murmured apprehensively. Suddenly, the station lights came on; but after a few seconds they flickered and went out again. As the light ebbed, the crowd gave in to panic. People rushed to the nearest open spaces, or threw themselves to the ground. A man slipped and rolled under the train. I began to start running, but checked myself, realizing that there was nowhere to run to, and running was pointless.

"After an hour and a half I made my way down the street into the centre of Pompei. The darkness was almost complete and, until my eyes became accustomed to it, I had to feel my way along the walls of the buildings that lined the street. The roadway was deserted and as soon as I could see well enough in the dark I moved away from the walls, as I was acutely fearful that masonry would fall on me. In the main square, residents had lit bonfires and were sitting patiently around them wrapped in blankets. Flames cast a bright orange light on the dense, watery clouds of fog that blew overhead. The mist parted momentarily to reveal a black bronze angel, trumpet in hand and wings outspread, perched on the white marble campanile of the Sanctuary of the Madonna."

I have quoted in extenso in order to give some flavour of what it is like to be in a disaster, unharmed, but scared stiff, and then accompanied everywhere by a lump in the throat, a tightness of the chest, a heaviness of heart, gut-wrenching tension and a profound sense of anguish.

As in any large earthquake, death, injury, destruction and damage proliferated. Daily life went out the window: in fact, I spent the next three nights sleeping on a park bench, and, when I could bring myself to sleep inside, I did so fully clothed with my shoes on and a torch in my hand, ready to react to the slightest tremor.

But the account I have just given is one of chaos and anarchy. In reality, disasters do not contain quite so much of those qualities. Hence, for me the real epiphany was not seeing the orange glow of the flames reflected on the black bronze angels, it was the moment, days later, when I started to read the literature on disasters and I realised that there is order amid the anarchy.

Most, perhaps all, phenomena consist of a combination of uniqueness and common elements. So it is with disasters. Each one is new and to a certain extent different from those that preceded it. But there is much common ground between one extreme, damaging event and another. It is this that enables us to develop theory.

You will have heard people—especially people with a strongly practical turn of mind—dismiss something by saying "oh, that's purely theoretical", as if theory were a dispensable adjunct to what we see and do. It is not so. Theory is the means by which we make sense of complicated phenomena. It helps us make a model of complex reality; and models, if they are good, are elegant simplifications that help us to understand complexities and come to terms with them.
In the early 1990s convocations of people who work in humanitarian relief organisations started talking about the 'complex disaster'. This is a crisis situation that occurs—and persists—in a place where the normal organisation of society has broken down. The pre-eminent examples came from the Middle East and Horn of Africa: Somalia, for instance, where government, security, education and many forms of commerce had to be reorganised informally if, and where, there was any chance of them taking place.

Critics of the 'complex disaster' have argued that all disasters are by their very nature complex, whether they occur in Somalia or California. If disasters were simple problems, or so goes the argument, there would be simple remedies and the whole matter would be under control.

But disasters are not under control. The last sixty years have seen the number of catastrophes and calamities increase fivefold and their costs increase more that fifteen times. In part, this is an artefact of better counting in 2012 than in 1950, more access to news about distant places, and the inclusion of more indirect costs in the statistics. (For example, in 1950 banks had no cash machines, but if your ATM is now put out of action by a disaster the fact that you cannot obtain money from it may well be factored into the costs.)

There is currently surprisingly little information to show that global warming has increased the power of natural disasters, but the signs are that this is merely a lag effect. In other words, before long it will be abundantly clear that meteorological disasters are becoming more powerful, more frequent and are lasting longer as a result of global climate change (and that goes for extremes at both ends of the spectrum, for example, floods and droughts). In the meantime the same effect, an increase in the sum total of human suffering, is produced by relentless rises in the population and the vulnerability of people who inhabit the places most at risk of natural hazards. Moreover, competition for resources, marginalisation, exploitation and a widening income gap between rich and poor may fuel conflict and thus produce more of another kind of disaster. Finally, technological development and the relentless rise of fixed, physical capital in hazardous areas adds to the portfolio of disaster risk. Technology is ever the double-edged sword, capable of making life safer and spreading great benefits but at the same time able to create new and enhanced forms of risk.

So disasters are not under control. What are we going to do about this? The first task is to study the problem in order to develop a better understanding of it: know disaster and by "knowing your enemy" learn to conquer him. And so back to the question of theory.

In many fields it is perfectly legitimate to develop theory for its own sake. There is nothing inherently wrong with a theoretical approach and the ability to see things in the abstract is a useful attribute, providing we don't all do it all the time. However, there is something rather special about theory in the study of disasters. In the words of an eminent sociologist of disasters, Professor Thomas E. Drabek, "theory is our road-map". When a situation is apparently chaotic, theory will help unravel the strands and make it comprehensible. In so doing, it will help us to satisfy basic needs for mitigation, response and readiness.

In few fields is the link between theory and practice so strongly forged. When a theorist produces a new hypothesis about hazard, risk or disaster, to be validated, it has to survive a more or less immediate test. For we need theory that is directly useful. It is all very well to do "blue sky thinking" and produce elaborate, abstract concepts, or descend into the contemorary Baroque of post-modern reasoning, but this is a field in which there are exceedingly strong imperatives. We need theory that can be applied in the round to help save lives, limit damage, anticipate adverse events, and so on. The test of theory is its ability to survive a "trial by fire" in the disaster area.

I hope that these reflections make it clear how important theory is. Far from being the "peacock's tail" of disasters, it is the means by which a link can—and must—be forged between academics who study disasters, emergency planners, front-line responders and a host of other practitioners. The accumulation of a body of theory legitimises a discipline and helps it to become mature. Disaster studies are an emerging discipline (and later we will deal with the question of how to identify and characterise it). Theory is the visiting card of this field and the means by which it will establish itself, grow to maturity and make a strong contribution to human welfare.

Therein lies a problem. The very earliest academic theorists of disasters (leaving aside the odd general who philosophised on the battlefield, and other ad hoc contributions) produced their initial contributions shortly after the First World War, and in some cases directly in response to that conflict.

Samuel Henry Prince was a man of the cloth (whose likeness is now immortalised in a stained glass window in a church in his home town). In Halifax, Nova Scotia, he ministered to parishioners after a munitions ship had exploded in the local harbour and devastated a large area of town, with heavy loss of life. His genius lay in his recognition of the existence of social regularities amid the chaos and destruction. He codified them in a doctoral thesis that became a book published in 1920 by his alma mater, Columbia University, and now freely available to be downloaded from the Internet. He was closely followed by a Chicago University geographer, a larger-than-life man physically and in human terms—and a giant of an intellectual—called Harlan Barrows, whose presidential address to the Association of American Geographers in 1923 kicked off the study, by geographers and anthropologists of 'human ecology' and the study of humanity's adaptation to environmental extremes.

Progress was relatively slow. In the inter-War years, a Russian, a monacled former aristocrat called Pitrim Sorokin, was co-opted by the Bolsheviks to help them understand how the masses reacted to social turmoil, as well as how soldiers reacted to stress on the battlefield, a question that was already preoccupying clinical psychologists in the West. Sorokin ended his days at Harvard University with a comfortable, if not outstanding reputation. Meanwhile, Professor Barrows's legacy at Chicago was about to blossom.

In the 1930s the United States had grappled unsuccessfully with the difficult problem of how to bring natural disasters under control, particularly floods. The massive rivers of the American heartland, the Missouri and Mississippi, were prone to overflow and devastate floodplain communities and agriculture, not once in a lifetime, but repeatedly year after year. It seemed that the more containment structures that were built, the worse the flooding became. The answer to the conundrum was provided by a gentle Quaker, Gilbert Fowler White, who,  for his efforts on behalf of disaster reduction in the United States, later received the Presidential Medal for Science from Bill Clinton.

White founded a school of human ecology in which the solutions proposed were both structural and non-structural. Land use control, emergency planning, insurance underwritten by the government and other such measures were to be added to the engineering solutions that had hitherto prevailed. White and his students also showed that how people perceive hazards has a great impact upon how they deal with them. In fact, systematic studies of perception took off under White's aegis, and, such was academic life in cosmopolitan Chicago, the concepts were exported to the four corners of the world, where,  by and large, they took root.

Meanwhile, conflict was once again stimulating academic work. In the countries that were exhausted by warfare, particularly Germany, France, Britain and Japan, the end of the Second World War and its early aftermath, were one long draw-out disaster for the survivors. Knowing that they would have to "fight the peace" as much as the war, even before the end of hostilities, the victors had sent in social scientists to listen and record (an act that contrasts starkly with the laissez faire attitude to the aftermath of hostilities in Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s).

Mass Observation survived the end of the 1940s. It did so because of the fears engendered by the Cold War. In the United States, the National Opinion Research Center was founded, again at Chicago, in 1941 and there it still remains. In the 1950s NORC made detailed studies of natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes—in an attempt to see whether the intense disruption that they caused could be considered an analogue for the effects of a nuclear war. In the end, the answer was a resounding 'no', especially as the megatonnage and stockpiles of nuclear weapons increased. But the studies remained valid in their own right, and in terms of social research on disasters, they started the ball rolling. (Let us note in passing that the same agenda was pursued at the time by the US National Academy of Sciences, which, among other initiatives, sent its psychologists to examine the effects of tornadoes on victims and survivors).

As time progressed, the geographers migrated to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the sociologists first to Columbus, Ohio, and then to the University of Delaware. Gradually the evidence mounted. People react to disasters according to how they perceive these phenomena, how they deal with risk, and how they perceive the opportunities that are available to them. Faced with hazard, they adapt their activities and lifestyles—always assuming that they perceive enough of the risks to adapt to them. Of course, there were plenty of anecdotes about maladaptation. For example, one researcher interviewed a property developer on the banks of a river in Pennsylvania. She asked him if he realised that the apartments he had just built were easily floodable. His response was a classic: "There is no flood risk here, because within six months I will have sold every one of these apartments!"

One thing bothers me about these studies, and that relates to the model individual that they are based on. The Nobel Prize-winning economist and polymath Herbert Simon wrote several papers in the 1950s in which he developed the concept of the rational man, homo economicus. This notional person was either an optimiser or a satisficer. In either case he did the best he could under the circumstances, but in the former instance he actively sought the best available information about hazards and risks, while in the latter case he was content with a less-than-complete set of information. The Chicago researcher's perceiver of floods and droughts, adopter of mitigation measures and adapter to environmental extremes, the human ecologist in the round, was a member of the homo economicus tribe.

Well, to begin with, there was no mention of his female counterpart. Would a 'rational woman' have been more or less rational than the man, and how would her brand of rationality have differed from his? Furthermore, the word culture did not appear in the dialogue. The form of rationality under consideration was economic; it was based on considerations of income and expenditure.

Anthropologists will decry what I have to say next: indeed, they have already severely lambasted me. However, the study of culture is conspicuous by its absence in a large proportion of disaster research. I accept that it has been central to the work of anthropologists, and these include some of the most eminent human ecologists (indeed, the synonym for this term preferred by many anthropologists is 'cultural ecology'). Karl Butzer, yet again of Chicago, was one such expert who looked at disasters. In a more sustained and intense way, so has the very eminent anthropologist Professor Anthony Oliver-Smith, working in the Andes. However, the sad fact is that anthropologists and other cultural ecologists have had relatively little impact on students of disaster from other disciplines, and there may be as many as 35 of these.

Culture is something I shall return to later in these talks, because it is as important as it is neglected. (Fortunately there are incipient signs that in the present decade something is at last going to be done to remedy this situation.) People do things for cultural reasons, whether they act with or without self-awareness. Perception and interpretation of disaster has cultural roots, even among those researchers who strive to be totally objective. One can even add that money is spent on the basis of cultural justifications that have little support in the mind of homo economicus. That, of course, is because homo sapiens sapiens, for better or worse, is endowed with memory and free will.

But let these considerations not be interpreted as a call for anarchy and liberation from theory. I am merely arguing that it is time to stop assuming that we are all, deep down, alike in how we view and react to disasters. I do, however, recognise that many of the social regularities brought to light in acultural studies have proved remarkably resilient, even when transplanted to radically different forms of society.

Besides the absence of culture, there has been another problem with disaster theory, which is fragmentation of effort. I have alluded to the difference between geographers, anthropologists and sociologists, but there are, in reality, somewhere between six and eleven different schools of thought. The fault lines between them may be micro or macro. Psychologists, for example, look at how people internalise the effects of disaster, while sociologists look at how they share them socially. The biggest dividing line is between the physical and construction sciences on the one hand and the social sciences on the other. To this day, the latter remain the poor relations.

Essentially, it took the period 1990-2005 to get the study of natural hazards fully established. This meant encouraging co-operation among physical scientists (geologists, seismologists, volcanologists, engineers, and so on) for the study of extreme natural events. The 'products', or outcomes, of this are maps of hazard and susceptibility; studies of energy expenditure leading to damage; surveillance, prediction and physical warning systems, and so forth.

To take an example, an effective hazard warning system must consist of three functioning subsystems: physical (i.e. scientific), administrative and social. The absence or inefficiency of any of these components will render the whole system ineffective. No greater rationale could be advanced for healing the breaches, bridging the gaps, or returning to a state of interdisciplinary activity—and including the social scientists.

I say 'returning': in the mid-eighteenth century, Domenico Antonio Guglielmini was Professor at the University of Bologna, the world's alma mater studiorum, but of what? He professed geology, anatomy, medicine and mathematics, and he was adept at discovering the connections between these sciences. In the modern age, the proliferation of knowledge has made it impossible, or at least very difficult, to be a professor of several radically different fields at once. But students of scientific progress often forget that the modern idea of disciplines is exactly that: it is of recent institution, perhaps dating from the 'Scottish Renaissance' of the 1790s. A couple of centuries later, is it not time to think again about where the boundaries ought to be?

I have long taken the view that the demands of the problem, not the nature of the discipline, should determine the way in which disaster is studied. No phenomenon is more transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary—or do I mean non-disciplinary?—than disaster.

Herein lies another problem, one that began to be serious in 1970 and has grown and grown ever since. Yes, the early body of theory about disaster did strive to be interdisciplinary, or at least multi-dimensional. In so doing, it tended to fragment. The result is that there are many more opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration than actual examples of it, and there are many studies that consider only one aspect of each multi-dimensional problem. Putting them together is a challenge. Concurrent to this, the obsolescence of theory about disasters is a developing problem.

The full fruit of Barrows's and White's work on disasters began to be felt in the 1970s. By this time the "hazardousness of place" was a well-established notion, and so were risk perception and adaptation. Proof that these ideas were well-established can be discerned in the way that they began seriously to be questioned. By the mid-1970s (when, incidentally, the United States made its first systematic effort to assess the nature and magnitude of the hazards that the nation faces) the model was in place, but it was beginning to look too linear: hazards acting upon the vulnerability of people and their communities and economies, and with disaster impact as the end result.

Research in East Africa began to paint a different picture. Here, vulnerability called the tune. Hazards could be looked upon as merely the 'trigger' to events whose form and severity were conditioned by the susceptibility of people and their communities to harm. In point of fact, commentators had been saying for years that there is nothing very natural about 'natural' disasters—a mere convenience term for events whose origin is human made. Thus, for instance, earthquakes directly kill very few people, but collapsing buildings can cause vast numbers of casualties. It follows that buildings which resist seismic shaking can drastically limit the tolls of death and injury in major earthquake events.

The so-called 'radical critique' was advanced in a book edited by the eminent Anglo-Canadian geographer Kenneth Hewitt, in 1983. His thesis was that vulnerability is the heart of causality when disaster strikes. Feedback dominates the linear relationship between hazard, susceptibility and harm. Hewitt and his colleagues argued that much more time should be spent on looking at the sources and causes of vulnerability than had hitherto been the case in a field dominated by the exponents of studies of hazards.

It took a quarter of a century before that idea was accepted at an institutional level. The European Commission finally backed it with funding over the period 2007-2011. The EC then fell into the political elephant trap that disaster so readily creates: it is a negative phenomenon with a negative image. Hence, the next tranche of funding went to back studies of resilience, practically the opposite of vulnerability. In my view, this was premature, as there is still plenty of mileage in vulnerability studies. For instance, one paper published in the early 2000s listed 22 different definitions of vulnerability: this is now reckoned to be about half of the number of definitions of the term that are in general circulation. It stands to reason that if we have trouble defining a term we still have trouble conceptualising the phenomenon it represents.

So where are we now, and what is the problem? The points I have made add up to the fact that academic and institutional views of disaster seem to change slower than the phenomenon itself. We are left with theory that is still based upon Simon's "rational man", that still lacks cultural resonance, that still places too much emphasis on hazards as the trigger rather than vulnerability as the essence.

The central fact is that the world has changed enormously over the last 40 years and, with respect to disasters, theory production has not kept pace. For example, since 1970, the income gap between the world's rich and poor has steadily widened. The demographic question has become more of an imperative; peak oil has already occurred, but demand continues to rise; resources are scarce, sustainability is elusive, and so on.

So let us end with a call for a renewed quest for theory that can successfully be applied to severely practical problems associated with risks and disasters. The incentive—and the fact that set me on a 32-year course of studying disasters—is that disasters are extraordinarily revealing phenomena. They open a window on the inner workings of society. They shine a light on the murky corners of the human condition. They etch the patterns of chiaroscuro in never-ending dichotomy between the benevolent and malevolent sides of the human character.

When I first started to study disaster many of the debates that are now so familiar and so quotidian were non-existent. Sustainability is one of these. When I call for improved theory, I believe that our strategy on disaster risk reduction (DRR—another relatively new term) must necessarily be integrated with our approach to sustainable living. In fact, DRR needs both to be sustainable in its own right and part of the general push to make our living conditions sustainable in terms of resource usage, apportionment and stewardship. Climate change and the technological revolution inherent in globalisation are great stimuli to these efforts.

In 1976 the journal Disasters began publication. I have been associated with it since it was five years old and it continues to flourish under the aegis of the Overseas Development Institute in London. The very first article in Volume 1, no. 1, was an editorial by the eminent expert on humanitarian relief, John Seaman. Dr Seaman, Chief Medical Officer with Save the Children Fund, has a talent for provocative writing. He began the journal by fervently hoping that it would cease publication. However, his criterion was that there be no more disasters. Unfortunately, we are a long way from achieving that end and Disasters is at Volume 36 and going strong.

The nature of the debate and the science it publishes has changed and continues to do so. My thesis is that it needs to change yet more radically. I invite you to join me in thinking about how that might occur, keeping in mind our ultimate goal, that ever-so-theoretical world that has, miraculously, been freed from the scourge of disaster.

Talk no. 2: Disasters Create Their Own Mythology

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.