The People Who Panic During Disasters Aren’t Who You Think They Are

The state of the universe.
Nov. 6 2012 2:56 PM

The Civilizing Power of Disaster

Where was all the chaos, looting, and mass-panic during Hurricane Sandy?

Volunteers spend the afternoon helping by unloading and organizing emergency supplies near Midland Beach as New York recovers from Hurricane Sandy.
Volunteers unload and organize emergency supplies near Midland Beach as New York recovers from Hurricane Sandy

Photograph by Mehdi Taamallah/AFP/Getty Images.

On Thursday, three days after Hurricane Sandy swept across the Eastern Seaboard, darkening power grids, flooding neighborhoods, and killing at least 74 people, former Star Trek actor and social-media dynamo George Takei posted a lovely photo to his Facebook timeline. It showed two power strips draped over the gratework of a fence, phone cords tendrilling from each one. A sign said, “We have power. Please feel free to charge your phone!”

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

Elsewhere on Facebook, a user from New York described what happened a few hours before the storm hit on Monday when a man attempted to steal a woman’s pocketbook:

Immediately, people were at their windows yelling “Stop that guy!” and then, it was as if all the people on the sidewalk immediately conspired to do just that. A couple with a stroller blocked the guy from running east, a man appeared and chased him across the street where a woman with a dog forced him to stop so the man in pursuit could tackle the guy in the middle of the street. The purse was wrested from the thief, who got up and ran away again, only to be caught by an older guy on the opposite sidewalk who pulled him out to the street where the woman … could identify him.

And the roll call of small mitzvahs and impromptu cooperation surrounding Sandy keeps expanding. Asked about conditions in post-hurricane New York, a Quora contributor mentioned the restaurants handing out free bread and coffee; the taxi drivers accepting whatever passengers have in the way of cash; the motorists waving walkers across the roads. In addition to rainwater, cities struck hard by Monday’s gale seem to be awash in the milk of human kindness.

Which prompted us cynical souls to ask: What’s going on? Conventional wisdom, supported by media narratives and Hollywood disaster flicks, says that emergencies bring out the worst in us. The 1977 New York City blackout still haunts our collective memory: Anarchy reigned, fires blazed, and looters and vandals ran amok. So where were the riots last week? Where was the mass panic? Why did so many people seem to rise to the occasion, instead of descending to some modern version of the Heart of Darkness?

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Researchers in disaster science have again and again debunked the idea that catastrophe causes social breakdown and releases the ugliest parts of human nature. Research from the past several decades demonstrates, as one report (pdf) put it, “that panic is not a problem in disasters; that rather than helplessly awaiting outside aid, members of the public behave proactively and prosocially to assist one another; that community residents themselves perform many critical disaster tasks, such as searching for and rescuing victims; and that both social cohesiveness and informal mechanisms of social control increase during disasters, resulting in a lower incidence of deviant behavior.” People become their best selves when crisis strikes.

The history of modern disasters entails a parallel history of people suddenly exhibiting communal, altruistic impulses. There were not enough lifeboats to save all 2,207 on board the Titanic. And yet, as a 2001 study confirmed, women and children, despite being physically weaker than men, were more likely to survive—suggesting that, in a nightmare scenario of scarce resources, many people chose sacrifice over self-interest. Likewise, a NIST report on the evacuation patterns of office workers in the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks told a story of order, cooperation, and selflessness, not mayhem or panic. 

A growing body of research suggests that large-scale emergencies loosen social mores just enough to open up new spaces for human resilience, imagination, and compassion. Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, coined the term “disaster utopia” to describe how people band together after a crisis, suspending conflicts or differences to help one another. She cites the provisional, fleeting society that cropped up in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm, which destroyed more than 28,000 homes, businesses, and municipal buildings. Gathered in Golden Gate Park, the newly homeless started soup kitchens and stitched together sheets to build refugee tents. They sang for each other and got married at far higher rates than usual. A strange, almost joyous liberation animated the city, one that survivors would remember with nostalgia, just as the Polish émigrés Solnit interviewed half-longed for the bad old days under a vicious Communist regime, because the harsh conditions forged such close communities of resistance. “Imagine a society,” Solnit writes, “where the fate that faces [people], no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”  

Why do we behave so well when our normal social structures vanish? Maybe we’re grateful that the crisis left us alive. Maybe doing good works gives us a sense of control or agency. Or maybe being kind just makes us happy. One of the oddest and trickiest parts of Solnit’s thesis holds that people are not only more generous to one another in the wake of disaster, but that they are happier, too. Or, to be more precise, they experience “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,” a kind of fulfillment that comes with recapturing what Solnit describes as humankind’s natural state. She argues that Westerners have internalized certain value systems—capitalism, individualism—that in some ways contradict our social wiring. Disruptive events recalibrate us to a “default setting,” which is “altruistic, communitarian [and] resourceful.” Solnit does not seek to minimize the grief and suffering crises can cause. Yet she believes that dealing with extreme situations helps us access a satisfying depth of feeling. Perhaps that’s one reason why people farther from a disaster often are more terrified by it. (Another explanation may be that onlookers can spare the emotional bandwidth for fear, while those at the epicenter simply do what they must.)

But meanwhile, the disaster myths persist. We expect anarchy when an emergency hits and get confused when civilization doesn’t come apart at the seams. Part of the blame lies with the media. Sociologists Kathleen Tierney, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski have outlined “reporting conventions that lead media organizations … to focus on dramatic, unusual, and exceptional behavior, which can lead audiences to believe such behavior is common and typical.”* Anomaly or not, a theft caught on tape makes for more compelling viewing than endless footage of rain. What’s more, they argue, news outlets narrate disasters through a “looting frame.” They intersperse relevant details with boilerplate commentary like “the National Guard has been brought into [name of community] to keep the peace”—implying that, without the National Guard, scofflaws would be running rampant. Such bias became especially evident in the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina. And it took an even uglier turn when it merged with the media’s penchant for criminalizing minorities. In August 2005, newspapers published images of African-Americans “looting goods,” while white people doing the exact same thing were seen as “finding supplies.” According to the researchers, reporters poured all their energy into uncovering “the putative lawless behavior of certain categories and types of people—specifically young black males—to the exclusion of other behaviors in which these disaster victims may have engaged,” thereby “producing a profile of looters … that overlooked whatever prosocial, altruistic behaviors such groups may have undertaken.”

In one sense, then, emergencies do bring out the worst in some of us. They spook the people who have the most to lose if society changes shape. Disaster scientists have christened this phenomenon elite panic: “fear of social disorder; fear of poor, minorities and immigrants; obsession with looting and property crime; willingness to resort to deadly force; and actions taken on the basis of rumor.” While public, disaster-zone panic is mostly an illusion, elite panic manifests in the “command-and-control” measures a government often takes after a natural disaster, including shoot-to-kill orders and the deployment of heavily-armed “relief” forces. President Bush dispatched hundreds of troops in camouflaged battle gear to supervise post-Katrina New Orleans. Rather than convey food and water to victims, these assault rifle-bearing soldiers stood guard at street intersections and prevented the sick and needy from leaving. The storm had devastated Louisiana physically, but elite panic turned it into a cauldron of suspicion, wasted human resources and reactionary violence. It laid bare the costs of our disaster myths.

Luckily, though, the New York and New Jersey communities hit hardest by Sandy are hewing closer to Rebecca Solnit’s vision. As power slowly returns to the East Coast and people rebuild their damaged homes, we’ll celebrate our lives going back to normal. It would be nice if we could hold onto a bit of utopia, too.

Correction, Nov. 8, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last name of sociologist Christine Bevc. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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