Transcript of Get Ready Report podcast Episode 12: “Surviving a disaster: Controlling our fears, Part 2"

Interview with Amanda Ripley, Time Magazine writer. This podcast is the second part of an interview with Ripley and the Get Ready campaign. The first part of the interview is also available as a podcast and transcript.

Narrator: This is the American Public Health Association’s Get Ready report. This episode is a continuation of an interview with Amanda Ripley about her book, The Unthinkable (Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why), and the mental factors that take place in the brain that affect human behavior during disasters.

Interviewer: Now, in your book you mentioned who the real first responders in a disaster are. Who are they?

Ripley: You know, you talk to anyone who’s actually survived a disaster and they will instantly tell you that they were the first responders. Since 9/11, we have become reliant on first responders. We have spent a lot of money equipping firefighters, policemen and so forth and that’s all well and good. But the reality is that in major disasters, those people are not there. They just can’t be everywhere at once. In big disasters, regular people do the majority of life saving. So the people you work and live with are the first responders. And I really think that this is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in covering disasters over the last decade. If we continue to focus on the experts and not the public, we’re not going to get any better at this. We really have to focus our energy on the people who are first at the scene in every disaster and that’s regular people. So continuing to pour billions of dollars into equipping first responders and not equipping and training the public is, I think, a mistake.

Interviewer: When it comes to hurricanes and other weather-related risks, we often overestimate ourselves. Can you explain how?

Ripley: There’s three major risks that I consider the most underappreciated but significant risks that most Americans face and that’s fire, floods and lightning. Those are things because of the way were wired, we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about in advance. We don’t really stress about it. We stress about things that are less likely to happen, for example, our kids getting kidnapped or terrorist attacks or shark attacks, my personal favorite. These are things that are extremely unlikely for most people. I think there’s only so much attention new have to spend on preparedness so it’s important to really prioritize. What are my biggest risks? This obviously depends on where you live and how you live, but certainly we know that disasters are getting more frequent and more extensive in this country largely because of wind and water events. We live in these dense vertical cities near water. So we really have to try and focus our minds on things like floods and fires, which generally kill more people in a year that all other disasters combined.

Interviewer: In your book you talk about “group think” and you note that our best chances of survival are normally improved by sticking together. Why is that?

Ripley: It seems to be an evolved reality because you see it in mammals as well. Chimpanzees, for example when they are under threat, will form groups and show each other affection. They also become very hierarchal and pay more attention to the leader and this is also true of humans. And the reality is that we don’t turn into these hysterical mobs that we see in movies. We tend to actually show each other great courtesy when things are going very bad. And that should be enormously reassuring to people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from survivors. People who have been in terrorist attacks, people who have been in enormous fires. They always marvel at how well most people behave. In general, the crowd does not like panic, does not like people who are screaming and out of control. And the crowd will snuff that out pretty quickly either by helping that person that minority of people or by aggressively telling them to stop. So generally people form groups and that’s helpful because you need information more than almost anything else in most disasters. So 10 brains and 20 hands are better than one brain and two hands.

Interviewer: And I have one last question. What is the biggest mistake made by the people in charge of protecting us?

Ripley: Again and again, the people in charge of protecting us tend to underestimate the ability of the public. They think that people will panic if they’re given frightening or potentially frightening information. They think people will loot or misbehave and I can’t tell you how many times this has come up even in my conversations with high level emergency preparedness officials. There is I think among many group of experts a belief that they know better. I think this is just part of human nature, but it is very dangerous when it comes to preparedness because the reality is usually you may know better but you’re not going to be there. The tendency to think that regular people will not perform well is often misguided. Regular people perform much better, on average than we expect. So we really need to enroll regular people, engage them creatively, listen to them in advance, and have them literally at the table when were making decisions about emergency evacuation drills, about how to prepare for biological threats. They literally need to be at the table or else there is a natural bias that will warp our planning, and we end up with emergency plans that are written for emergency responders.

Interviewer: Amanda, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ripley: No, I think that’s it. I very much appreciate your taking the time to talk with me.

Interviewer: Oh well, Thank you so much and thank you so much for participating in this very important topic. Where can we pick up copies of your book?

Ripley: The book is available at most major bookstores or you can find it, I think it’s cheapest at amazon.com. You can also learn about it at theunthinkable.com.

Thank you for tuning into today’s episode. For more information about the American Public Health Association, visit www.apha.org and for more information about the Get Ready campaign, visit www.getreadyforflu.org.

Interview conducted March 2009 by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA

To learn more about APHA’s Get Ready campaign, visit www.getreadyforflu.org

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