|Disasters Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 13 - October, 1982 (PAHO)|
The following article has been excerpted from a paper contributed by Prof. E.L. Quarantelli, Director of the Disaster Research Center, Ohio Slate University. We are publishing it in the hope that the issues raised on this much debated subject will elicit letters to the Editor from our readers. Prof. Quarantelli has written extensively on the matter, and the Center he heads has carried out numerous studies of social behavior in disasters.
The most important thing about disaster planning is not what is said, but what is assumed. Particularly crucial are the assumptions that are made about human and group behavior in disasters. If the assumptions are valid, then what is said about the planning process has the possibility of being relevant and worthwhile. If the assumptions are invalid, the planning advocated cannot be anything but poor.
Unfortunately, studies by social scientists in recent years have shown that much disaster planning, as well as training programs, are based on incorrect assumptions about such behavior. Especially distressing is the mistaken view that actual or potential disaster victims do not react too well in the face of danger. This is simply not true: reality is different from the assumption.
Three assumptions are commonly made. There is the view that human beings will "panic" or break down under extreme stress. It is also widely believed that antisocial behavior-especially of a criminal nature-will surface. Finally, it is thought that disaster victims will be passive and absolutely dependent on organizations for help.
Were this to be true, it would have important implications for disaster planning and response measures. There could, for example, be genuine concern about ordering an evacuation because of the fear of panic. Also, personnel and resources might be deployed for security measures rather than other response actions.
As a whole, people do not panic. Actual instances of hysterical breakdowns are extremely rare. In fact, instead of flight away from danger sites it is much more likely that there will be convergence on the impacted areas. Instead of aimless running around, actual or potential disaster victims move to what they consider safe locations and attempt to do what they think has to be done in an emergency. Neither do disaster victims develop psychoses or severe mental illness. Disaster victims are usually quite frightened, but that does not mean that they will act impulsively, selfishly, or crazily. The usual response is an attempt to consciously assess the nature of the situation and to consider the available courses of action.
Many inexperienced officials and journalists apparently see disasters as opportunities for antisocial behavior to surface. It is speculated that deviant behavior will emerge, with widespread looting and other forms of criminal behavior. Essentially, it is the assumption that the latent evil in humans will be manifest to the extreme at times of disasters.
This view has also been shown to be incorrect. What generally emerges is prosocial behavior. Many stories of looting will circulate, but actual instances will be rare and if they occur they will often be done by outsiders rather than the impacted population. Disorderly crowd behavior seldom occurs. Crime rates often drop and exploitative behavior is relatively infrequent. Usually, far more goods will be shared and freely given away than could conceivably be looted.
There is a tendency to assume that disaster victims are left dazed, shocked, and unable to cope with extreme physical and psycholocial stress. It is supposed that victims are so disoriented and demoralized that they will need outsiders to do the most elementary tasks for them such as being fed, housed and clothed. Thus, it is expected that an impacted population will passively wait until organized help arrives from the outside.
This is not borne out by studies either. Victims are not immobilized by even the most catastrophic of events. They are neither devoid of initiative, nor do they passively wait for others to take care of them and their needs. What emerges instead is considerable individual and group initiative. Usually, before full impact is over, search and rescue efforts are initiated by neighbors, and the injured are brought to where medical care can be obtained. Shelter is actively sought and offered by kin and friends, and single home rebuilding efforts are started early. In just about all disasters, cooperative informal initiative and assistance will be the predominant behavior. Formal helping organizations will be sought and depended on only as a last resort or under unusual circumstances.
We do not want to leave a picture that individuals by themselves or together with a few friends and neighbors can handle all emergency related problems. There are things that individuals can or should not do for themselves. Neighbors might find victims in search and rescue efforts but they cannot provide medical treatment. Similarly, heavy debris clearance, rebuilding of bridges, restoration of electric power, testing of water for contaminants, etc., are not tasks that private citizens or small groups of neighbors can perform very well. Furthermore, such matters as issuance of warnings, designing of priorities for emergency actions, integrating the convergence of outside relief help, restocking medical supplies, or making decisions about recovery measures, etc., of necessity have to be organizational responsibilities.
Is the picture we have depicted of human behavior a universal and absolute one? It is by far the typical and most frequent one which will be encountered, but exceptions can occasionally be found. A disaster or a threat will not bring order, except very temporarily, to a society wracked by civil strife. If a community is plagued by widespread stealing on an everyday basis, such behavior will not substantially disappear except very momentarily at the time of the emergency. If a population is living on a bare subsistence basis daily, there can be only fleeting sharing of goods with victims when a disaster strikes. Past situations still continue to be the best predictor of future behavior. However, our point is that disasters in themselves do not markedly increase social pathology, criminal behavior, or conflict over their normal rates of occurrence.
If, instead of panic, relatively controlled behavior, order, and a fair amount of personal and family initiative are the norm, different kinds of disaster planning and response measures are indicated. Unless they have clear evidence to the contrary, disaster planners and emergency personnel should assume that they will be faced with the more positive rather than the negative features of human behavior. They, as well as those responsible for disaster training, must be careful to avoid the mythologies and stereotypes which prevail. There is in fact the danger that if the incorrect assumption is made and acted upon, such as the supposed passive dependency of victims, a self fulfilling prophecy will be the result.
In the main, human beings rise to the challenge of disasters. It is in the helping organizations where most of the response problems occur. Such groups and agencies should not compound their problems by making the wrong assumptions about the victims with which they will deal. It is our hope that the remarks made here will contribute to a realistic perspective on disaster behavior.