Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How To Survive a Disaster or Terrorist Attack

I first listened to the interview with the author about this book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why by Amanda Ripley, on the Diane Rehm Show last Thursday.

The interview got into some interesting facets - such as differences between men and women and how those differences can cut different ways depending on the nature of the disaster. Women tend to worry more and therefore tend to evacuate earlier. This quality is helpful to surviving a flood. Men tend to believe they have control over their destiny (whether they actually do or not) and this quality propels them more readily to act in other, usually man made, circumstances (maybe I should say human made).

How to Survive a Disaster is an excerpt from that book, which was printed by Time in the magazine.

disasters are part of the human condition. We are more or less vulnerable to them, depending where we live.

But survival is not just a product of luck. We can do far more than we think to improve our odds of preventing and surviving even the most horrendous of catastrophes. It's a matter of preparation--bolting down your water heater before an earthquake or actually reading the in-flight safety card before takeoff--but also of mental conditioning. Each of us has what I call a "disaster personality," a state of being that takes over in a crisis. It is at the core of who we are. The fact is, we can refine that personality and teach our brains to work more quickly, maybe even more wisely.

Best use of quote:
Of course, no one can promise a plan of escape. But that doesn't mean we should live in willful ignorance. As Hunter S. Thompson said, "Call on God, but row away from the rocks."
Flight or fight is a mis-perception. In fact, humans tend to freeze:
When disaster strikes, a troubling human response can inflate the death toll: people freeze up. They shut down, becoming suddenly limp and still...Contrary to popular expectations, this is what happens in many disasters. Crowds generally become quiet and docile. Panic is rare. The bigger problem is that people do too little, too slowly. They sometimes shut down completely, falling into a stupor.
Unless they have a child (another reason to have a child):
Later, when interviewed by the police, some survivors said they understood this behavior. At some point, they too had felt an overwhelming urge to stop moving. They only snapped out of the stupor, they said, by thinking of their loved ones, especially their children--a common thread in the stories of survivors of all kinds of disasters.
Why we freeze and how to prevent that from happening include drills and awareness:

Firefighters, police trainers--even stockbrokers--have told me similar stories of seeing people freeze under extreme stress. Animals go into the same state when they are trapped, evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. has found. Playing dead can discourage predators from attacking. In the case of the Estonia and other disasters, the freezing response may have been a natural and horrific mistake. Our brains search, under extreme stress, for an appropriate survival response and sometimes choose the wrong one, like deer that freeze in the headlights of a car.

But the more encouraging point is that the brain is plastic. It can be trained to respond more appropriately. Less fear makes paralysis less likely. A rat with damage to the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain that handles fear, will not freeze at all--even if it encounters a cat. If we can reduce our own fear even a little bit, we might be able to do better.

Fire drills, particularly if they are mandatory and unexpected, can dramatically reduce fear, should the worst come to pass. Just knowing where the stairs are gives your brain an advantage. Likewise, research into plane crashes has found that people who read the safety briefing cards are more likely to survive. These rituals that we consider an utter waste of time actually give our brains blueprints in the unlikely event that we need them.

And we often die in disasters how we live, in our social, expected roles:
the fire also complicated official expectations for crowd behavior: in the middle of a crisis, the basic tenets of civilization actually hold. People move in groups whenever possible. They tend to look out for one another, and they maintain hierarchies. "People die the same way they live," says disaster sociologist Lee Clarke, "with friends, loved ones and colleagues, in communities."

At the Beverly Hills, servers warned their tables to leave. Hostesses evacuated people that they had seated but bypassed other sections (that weren't "theirs"). Cooks and busboys, perhaps accustomed to physical work, rushed to fight the fire. In general, male employees were slightly more likely to help than female employees, maybe because society expects women to be saved and men to do the saving.

And then, there's Rick Rescorla. My mom read the biography of Rescorla, Heart of a Soldier by James B. Stewart's. If you don't know his story you should. He saved the employees of Morgan Stanley on 9/11 and died that day.

Here's a New Yorker profile that Stewart wrote in February 2002, a precursor to his biography of Rescorla; my mom and I both read and discussed it. He was quite a guy and lived in the town next to ours in New Jersey.

From Amanda Ripley in Time:
Rescorla felt it was foolish to rely on first responders to save his employees. His company was the largest tenant in the Trade Center, a village nestled in the clouds. Morgan Stanley's employees would need to take care of one another. He ordered them not to listen to any instructions from the Port Authority in a real emergency. In his eyes, it had lost all legitimacy after it failed to respond to his 1990 warnings. And so Rescorla started running the entire company through his own frequent, surprise fire drills. He trained employees to meet in the hallway between the stairwells and go down the stairs, two by two, to the 44th floor.

The radicalism of Rescorla's drills cannot be overstated. Remember, Morgan Stanley is an investment bank. Millionaire, high-performance bankers on the 73rd floor did not appreciate the interruption. Each drill, which pulled brokers off their phones and away from their computers, cost the company money. But Rescorla did it anyway. His military training had taught him a simple rule of human nature: the best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is to repeatedly run it through rehearsals beforehand.
The lesson and success of Rescorla has not been learned. Even after 9/11.

Rescorla taught Morgan Stanley employees to save themselves. It's a lesson that has become, somehow, rare and precious. When the tower collapsed, only 13 Morgan Stanley colleagues--including Rescorla and four of his security officers--were inside. The other 2,687 were safe.

And she points us to her web site for her book, "to learn more about survival skills in a disaster, go to www.TheUnthinkable.com"

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