The Disaster Mythology

The subject comes up so often on this blog that I've decided to create a separate page as an introduction to the disaster mythology, to avoid having to explain it again and again. Because disaster is an unavoidable element of collapse, all of us who are convinced that collapse is coming, or already taking place, need to be well informed on how things actually go during disasters. I feel the need is urgent, so rather than taking time to write a polished and lengthy post I've thrown together what you are currently reading, a brief and temporary version, which I will flesh out later as time allows.

The disaster mythology is a set of beliefs about what happens during disasters that is pretty much universally accepted, and at the same time is pretty much totally wrong. For detailed information please do read the articles and books I've linked to at the bottom of this page. In brief, though, here are the basic elements of this mythology, taken from the article Disaster Mythology and Fact: Hurricane Katrina and Social Attachment.

  • Myth #1: Foreign medical volunteers with any kind of clinical background are needed. Fact: The local population almost always provides for its own immediate health needs. Only medical personnel with skills that are not available in the affected country may be needed.
  • Myth #2: Any kind of international assistance is needed immediately. Fact: A hasty response, not based on an impartial evaluation, contributes to the chaos. Most needs are met by the victims themselves and their government and local agencies, not by foreign aid workers.
  • Myth #3: Epidemics and plagues are inevitable after every disaster. Fact: Epidemics seldom occur after a disaster, and dead bodies do not lead to catastrophic outbreaks of infectious diseases. Improving sanitary conditions and educating the public on hygienic measures are the best means of preventing disease.
  • Myth #4: Disasters bring out the worst in people (e.g., looting, rioting). Fact: While there are isolated cases of antisocial behavior, which tend to be highlighted by the media, most people respond positively and generously.
  • Myth #5: The affected population is too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for its own survival. Fact: Many people find new strength and resiliency during an emergency.
  • Myth #6: Disasters are random killers. Fact: Disasters strike the most vulnerable groups hardest, i.e., minorities and the poor, especially women, children, and the elderly.
  • Myth #7: Locating disaster victims in temporary settlements is the best solution to the housing problem. Fact: This is the least desirable option. The preferred strategy is to purchase construction materials and rebuild.
  • Myth #8: Food aid is always required for the victims of natural disasters. Fact: Massive food aid is not usually required; natural disasters only rarely cause loss of crops.
  • Myth #9: Clothing is always needed by disaster victims. Fact: Clothing is almost never needed; it is usually culturally inappropriate, and although it is accepted by disaster victims it is almost never worn.
  • Myth #10: Things return to normal within a few weeks. Fact: Disasters have enduring effects and major economic consequences. International interest tends to wane just as needs and shortages become more pressing.

This list is primarily written from the viewpoint of people looking in from the outside of a disaster. While all these points are important to be aware of and indeed to understand in detail, the focus of this blog is responding to disasters when they happen to us. Kollapsniks like me tend to be especially concerned about the expected negative reactions of the people around us during a disaster, so I want to look at Myths 4 and 5 in particular. Again, I borrow from the same Hurricane Katrina article.

Myth #4: Do disasters trigger social breakdown?

It is commonly assumed that the social contract is tenuous at best and that major natural disasters and other crises trigger mass disruption, disorder, and social breakdown. While there were well-documented instances of brutal hijacking, rioting, and looting in New Orleans after the deep flooding caused by the hurricane, there were many more reports of altruism, cooperativeness, and camaraderie among the affected population. The overall cooperative, prosocial, and altruistic individual and community response following Hurricane Katrina was similarly observed after the Asian tsunami of December 2004, and the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London, and may have been reflected in the transient 40% to 60% drop in the homicide rate in New York City after September 11, 2001. In support of de Goyet's thesis, it is well documented that natural and man-made disasters are followed by increases in altruistic behavior and social solidarity.

Following Hurricane Katrina, many residents of Baton Rouge, for example, invited someone to stay in their home; hotels housed displaced families, extended families, and pets; and nearly every large shelter created a clinic run by local doctors and nurses. At New Orleans' Charity Hospital (the Medical Center of Louisiana), people of different races, old and young, patients and providers, both rich and poor, held hands and prayed for rescue. Notwithstanding the chaos and confusion, the medical staff remained calm and communicated coherently, dispensing care and comfort. A flashlight-illuminated talent show was held in which everyone was invited to participate, including patients with masks donned to prevent the spread of tuberculosis.

Myth #5: Are those affected unable to take responsibility for their own survival?

Against the common misconception that disaster victims are too shocked and helpless to take responsibility for their own welfare and survival, many find new strength and resiliency during emergencies. Thousands of local volunteers spontaneously united to sift through the rubble in search of victims after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. Most rescue work, including providing first-aid and transportation, is done by disaster victims themselves, as witnessed after the Asian tsunami in 2004, the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, and the 2005 bombing attacks in London.

Similarly, following Hurricane Katrina, despite the loss of infrastructure and power outages at some shelters, the affected population engaged in active coping behavior. The medical staff of Charity Hospital maintained a disciplined schedule while electrical power was lost and food and many medications were lacking. Desperately ill patients also took responsibility for their own care. On the other hand, most residents of New Orleans who remained in the city were stranded by the floodwater and depended on emergency workers for rescue.

My comment on this is that during disasters, with the usual social constraints removed, people can stop playing their customary roles as individuals and competitors in the formal economy (the roles society has forced on them), and come together as a community (especially with family, friends and neighbours) to work co-operatively and generously toward a common goal. The fact that responding to the disaster provides a clear common goal is a big help, but such a community is in fact the default human behaviour, rather than the rioting, looting and general social breakdown that the disaster mythology would have us suspect. Our preparations for disaster and collapse should reflect this. We should expect people not just to rise to the occasion, but to do so with joy. Anything you can to do facilitate this behaviour is good, anything that interferes with it is bad.

Links to good articles on the internet

Links to podcasts about positive responses to disasters


I first heard of the disaster mythology in Rebecca Solnit's book (see below), and at the time it seemed a little bit improbable to me. So I did a little research and discovered that there is actually a branch of sociology that studies human response to disaster and it supports what Solnit says in her book. The book by Fischer nicely summarizes the scientific consensus on the subject.

  • A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit
    Here's a review that summarizes what this book is about.
  • Response to Disaster: Fact Versus Fiction and Its Perpetuation by Henry W. Fischer, III
    "Response to Disaster combines the original research of author Henry W. Fischer with the literature used today to describe behavioral and organizational challenges commonly experienced before, during, and after disasters. Actual problems are presented and compared to those often misperceived to occur, know as disaster mythology. Fisher examines case studies conducted during the post-impact and long-term recovery periods of major and minor disasters worldwide. He asserts that the role of the mass media assists in eliciting needed help with an effective response, but also perpetuates disaster mythology."
    "Fischer presents striking comparisons between the perception of disaster in the eyes of the general public, the actual situations emergency responders face, and the way mass media reporters broadcast information. Additionally, the problems encountered by emergency response organizations are compared and contrasted with general public and media perceptions of disaster response. Fisher presents the response to September 11, 2001, the south Asian tsunami, and hurricane Katrina in this comprehensive third edition."

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