Myths and realities of household disaster response

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Expectations about people’s behavior during disaster impacts shapes the way that emergency managers plan for community emergency response. This chapter examines the prevailing myths and misconceptions about people’s behavior in disasters and contrasts these with the findings of research on how people actually respond in emergencies. In particular, this chapter emphasizes the relationship between households and the community emergency response organization in connection with the population protection function—especially warning and the implementation of protective actions such as evacuation and sheltering in-place.


Even people who have never been in a disaster hold definite beliefs about how others typically respond when disaster strikes. Unfortunately, disaster researchers have been forced to label many of these beliefs as disaster myths because five decades of research have found little support for their validity. Some disaster myths have a grain of truth but are overgeneralized. That is, people assume them to be true for all (or at least most) victims but, in fact, the myths only apply to a very small minority. Other disaster myths have no validity whatsoever. A common theme among these disaster myths is that disaster victims are so psychologically fragile as to be incapable of taking care of themselves, whereas others are so predatory that they will take advantage of any disruption in social control (e.g., police surveillance) to prey upon others. Thus, according to these myths, local authorities must cope with widespread panic, disaster shock, and looting. The logical consequence of these myths is that external authorities must intervene as powerful rescuers to take care of the helpless victims.

The rather bleak and depressing view of human nature that these disaster myths express is propagated by the mass media—sometimes in movies, other times in (second- or third-hand) hearsay passed on by reporters, and occasionally by disaster victims themselves (Drabek, 1997; Fischer, 1998). These disaster myths can create problems if they distort the assumptions upon which emergency preparedness and response are based. Local emergency responders have limited resources, so they must base their actions on victims’ actual needs rather than mistaken conceptions of those needs. Some risk area residents do indeed require a substantial amount of assistance, but most households will be largely self-sufficient. Most disaster victims are psychologically resilient and engage in socially integrative—rather than destructive—responses. As the following sections indicate, many people stricken by community-wide disasters take considerable personal initiative and improvise adaptive responses to unfamiliar circumstances. Disasters frequently produce a convergence of volunteers who provide support (behavioral, material, and emotional), as well as the emergence of organized groups. If emergency managers understand how many households can take care of themselves—and, better yet, identify which parts of the community are most likely to be self-sufficient—then the emergency response organization can focus its efforts on those who are truly needy.

This chapter examines what is known about people’s responses to natural and technological disasters, and also extrapolates from that information to infer what might be reasonably expected in connection with terrorist incidents. As noted in Chapter 5, natural disasters and accidental technological accidents vary with respect to the threats they pose to society. Consequently, they can vary in their psychological impact on citizens and the demands they place on emergency response organizations. Terrorist incidents do not differ in the nature of the threats to society; the same types of materials, energy, and information could be involved in an accidental incident as in a deliberate incident. What is likely to be different about terrorist incidents is their greater frequency compared to accidental incidents and the deliberate selection of hazard agents (radiation, for example) that generate higher and more acute levels of fear than others (Slovic, et al., 1980). Indeed, an often noted finding from studies of the reactor accident at Three Mile Island is that, when facing a perceived radiation threat, local residents expressed higher levels of concern, warning compliance, and spontaneous evacuation than were anticipated by authorities (Lindell & Perry, 1992). Thus, examining data on human response to similar hazard agents can provide meaningful guides both to household response and organizational response needs in terrorist incidents—even those that have not previously been experienced.

Myths of Household Response to Disasters

According to widespread belief (and common depictions in the media), disaster victims typically act irrationally. They flee in panic, wander aimlessly in shock, or comply docilely with the recommendations of authorities. Following impact, they are incapable of protecting themselves or others, let alone protect their property from further damage. Thus, they need assistance from governmental agencies or NGOs such as the American Red Cross. The widespread breakdown of the social order leads to looting in evacuated areas and an increase in the rates for other crimes, as well. Consequently, martial law must be declared to restore order in the impact area. Moreover, concerned citizens must travel to the impact area to donate blood, food, and clothing. Indeed, decades of movies, novels, and press coverage of disasters emphasize the general theme that a few “exceptional” individuals lead the masses of frightened and passive victims to safety (Wenger, 1980). Thus, conventional wisdom holds that victims typically respond to disasters with shock, passivity, or panic (Drabek, 1997; Perry, 1983).

Social scientific studies have repeatedly demonstrated that none of these responses represents the reaction of the majority of disaster victims (Quarantelli, 1954; Quarantelli & Dynes, 1972; Wenger, Faupel & James, 1980; Goltz, Russell & Bourque, 1992; Johnson, Feinberg & Johnston, 1994). Indeed, most people do not develop shock reactions, panic flight occurs only rarely, and people tend to act in what they believe is their best interest, given their limited understanding of the situation. As Chapter 4 indicated, most people respond constructively to environmental threats by seeking information and progressing through a reasonably logical sequence of steps in determining how to cope with a threatening event. Moreover, behavior in the emergency response phase is generally prosocial as well as rational. After a disaster strikes, uninjured victims are often the first to search for survivors, care for those who are injured, and assist others in protecting property from further damage. When they seek assistance, victims are more likely to contact informal sources such as friends, relatives, and local groups rather than governmental agencies or even such quasi-official sources as the Red Cross. Antisocial behaviors such as looting are relatively rare, while crime rates tend to decline following disaster impact. People tend to converge on disaster scenes to offer help and even many of those who are geographically distant send money and supplies. The picture that emerges of disaster victims is one of responsible activism, self-reliance, community support, and adaptation the situation as best they understand it, using whatever resources are available. Victims are typically supported in their efforts by official organizations and resources, but also by contributions from other people not directly affected by the event.

The myths of irrational and antisocial behavior in disaster are not just erroneous; they can hamper the effectiveness of emergency planning by misdirecting the allocation of resources and the dissemination of information (Tierney, et al., 2001). For example, expectations of panic often become the justification for giving the public incomplete information about an environmental threat or withholding it altogether. This response to the myth of panic is particularly troubling because people have been shown repeatedly to be more reluctant to comply with recommended protective actions when they are provided with vague or incomplete information in warning messages. The misconception that accurate information will cause panic sometimes leads officials to release information that actually decreases the likelihood of compliance. Consequently, an important part of the emergency planning process involves review not only of physical or biological science literature on the hazards to which a community is exposed, but also of the behavioral science literature describing the response patterns of affected populations. The behavioral record is very clear with respect to three commonly held beliefs about disaster victims’ reactions—disaster shock, panic flight, and socially integrative responses.

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