Understanding How Society Responds to Emergencies
Growing up, I was always very interested in weather, natural disasters especially. Their magnitude and power fascinated me, driving me to study more sciences and get a better understanding of the natural world. The sociology of disasters caught my eye because though I understand how the disasters occur, I, before this project, did not understand how individuals responded due to the fact I myself have never been caught in a natural disaster. Living in an area by the water prone to hurricanes also makes this information enticing because there is always chance a hurricane could hit here, causing its own natural disaster. Understanding the sociology behind a disaster will better prepare me if one should ever happen.
In a day and age where disaster is becoming more common and extreme, the question of disaster preparedness comes up quite more frequently and has individuals asking themselves-am I prepared for such a disaster? How will I react? Contrary to popular belief, or disaster mythology, most people do not engage in widespread panic, or always follow and head warnings when it comes to evacuation, preparation, and general emergency orders. In a time where weather information is so widespread and accessible, it can be confusing for individuals and officials alike, trying to understand why people do not react in ways they are expected to. Understanding why groups in disasters preform actions to the contrary of common sense and perceived trust in oneself is important in coming up with plans of action that will help prevent injury, death, and property loss during natural disasters.
After analyzing the response of citizens in emergency situations, it is imperative that individuals become more informed about disaster mythology in order to keep themselves and others safe and prepared during disaster situations. Individuals do not act in predicted ways during emergency situations.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines natural disaster as, “a sudden and terrible event in nature (such as a hurricane, tornado, or flood) that usually results in serious damage and many deaths”, which are seemingly becoming more frequent in how often they affect the world (Merriam-Webster, 2018). A good example of a natural disaster impacting us right now are the Camp and Woolsey Fires happening in California. Though the fires have been contained, 88 people have died, and over 20,000 structures have been destroyed, and the fire will still not be out entirely for months (Johnson, 2018).
In the case of a fire, there is very little forecasters can do in predicting affected areas, how much the fire will spread, and how fast it can be contained. This makes it difficult for emergency systems to timely alert individuals when to evacuate, and for those who fall under the over-arching stigma of disaster mythology, may endanger themselves by not heading warnings.
Disaster mythology can be defined by myths spread by social media, TV, and by word of mouth giving false impressions of what happens before, during, and after natural disasters (Fischer, 1998). Some common disaster myths, as stated by WHO, are that disasters bring out the worst in people, and that disasters are random killers (WHO ,2018). In reality, during disasters, people, instead of turning to crime and vicious activity, are usually spontaneously helpful and caring towards their fellow neighbor, and even are more generous towards a random stranger than they might be with their own family.
Disasters are not random killers, and they always strike hardest at the most vulnerable groups-the poor, women, children and the elderly. It also commonly thought that when people are told they will be facing a disaster, there will be widespread panic and fleeing, but in reality, people go into a state of disbelief and do not flee, rather they attempt to stay out the course due to their inability to reason with the magnitude of the disaster (Nelson, 2011).
While many people expect individuals impacted by a disaster to be selfish, they actually become very altruistic, becoming very selfless and wanting to go out of their way for others (Drabek, 2003). During disasters, contrary to popular belief, those affected are the first to help one another, not relief organizations or the local government. A sense of community is formed when individuals go through a common shared experience, and in this case, it would be a natural disaster.
This is called a secondary group, which is when a group is bound together to complete common tasks without emotional ties, such as rebuilding buildings, providing first aid, and giving food and shelter to those who need it. People are too focused on rebuilding their community and themselves to focus on things like crime, hostility, and selfishness. Disaster mythology would cause one to think that people would turn to crime in a time of vulnerability, but clearly the opposite happens.
When looking at how ethnicity and race affect how individuals fair in natural disasters, for floods and hurricanes especially, it has been shown that people of color are significantly disproportionately and differentially vulnerable because of pre-existing systems of stratification in the US and US territories (Stevenson, 2013). Similarly, people in lower socioeconomic groups are also seriously vulnerable and disadvantaged during disasters due to pre-existing stratification.
These groups, more in the past than now, have only been able to afford homes in areas deemed less desirable by higher economic groups, which usually translates to areas not developed well enough to hold up against natural disasters (Stevenson, 2013). Hurricane Katrina is credited with drawing more attention to the racial and socioeconomic aspects of a disaster’s impact.
Many argued that ”the black citizens of New Orleans have had a more difficult time getting support and that the city that is emerging is less hospitable to them” (Johnson, 2018). Interestingly, when looking at who different races turn to after disasters for aid, Caucasians are more likely to seek aid from friends and family, while African Americans were more likely to seek aid from established relief organizations (Drabek, 2003).
When it comes to gender, there have been several conflicting studies about the roles of men and women during natural disasters. In a study done after the Loma Prieta earthquake, it was shown was shown that women significantly outnumbered men in leadership roles and emergent groups because women see disaster as a threat to the home (Phillips 1990). Though this assertion plays into gender stereotypes, it has also been shown that men and women play into these stereotypes during natural disasters. Men, after earthquakes in Mexico City, for example, participated in almost only stereotypical male roles such as search and rescue, and the clearing of debris, while women mostly focused on rehabilitation and mental healing of those in the community (Werner, 1990). It seems that how society expects men and women to act, which is conditioned into us by how we are raised, becomes second nature in emergency situations.
Society tends to cultivate gender roles and stereotypes. Traditionally, parents give their children’s toys that fit within gender roles for that child’s sex. For example, a female child would be given dolls and dress up clothing to make her learn how to nurture and socialize rather than what males are given, trucks and guns, which make them more aggressive and solitary. This conditions the idea that men should be participating in physical and labor intensive actions such as debris cleanup and search and rescue, and that women should nurture provide comfort. Disasters exemplify the gender roles conditioned by society.
There are several main approaches for dealing with natural disasters, but command and control method is the one most highly used (Drabek, 2003). Sociologists believe, to the contrary of the command and control model, that a less structured model which recognizes the spontaneous nature of individuals post disaster is necessary. In any situation, it is crucial to have people on board, at the ready to help post-disaster. A structured approach is needed, but the question is, how structured should it be?
The command and control model is one that focuses on a hierarchy that is tasked with making different decisions. It is a very rigid system that focuses on following policy and procedure, and leaves very little wiggle room. The model is authoritative in nature and uses a top-down approach, which fits well in bureaucratic organizations in which privilege and power are vested in senior management. It is founded on, and “emphasizes a distinction between, executives on the one hand and workers on the other” (Gill, 2010).
The command and control model may work well when it comes to businesses, but maybe not when it comes to disasters. It is difficult to predict what is going to occur during a natural disaster, so such a rigid model makes it difficult to meet the actual needs of various situations. Many people believe this model is not efficient because it cannot handle very large disasters, does not have efficient communication, and it is based off of disaster mythology.
If the people in charge of the decisions being made are not actually on the ground, so to speak, how do they know they are making the right choices? While this model may look and sound good on paper, when it is actually implemented, it seems like policy and the bureaucratic nature of it get in the way of it being efficient.
Sociologists believe a laxer and more spontaneous mean of decision making should be employed. After looking at how people actually behave during natural disasters, it seems fitting to have a less rigorous, government approach on what people need and do not need. The people affected should be able to decide what they need, and have a direct line of communication with the government so they know how things are actually being handled on the ground, so to speak. We know, after analyzing the research on how individuals behave, that people tend to band together, and help each other out, not look to the government for immediate aid and relief. They depend on each other, and the sporadic kindness that appears during disasters. While a more rigid structure may be needed post-disaster, it does not sound efficient during disasters.
Overall, people tend to assume the worst in people, especially when it comes to emergency situations. A natural disaster can be defined as an event in nature that causes destruction and loss of life. People actually tend to become very altruistic and band together in times of need. Society expects individuals to turn to crime and violence, and engage in panic, when realistically they just want to help, and focus on rebuilding their broken lives. People do not have time to engage in raids and harmful behavior when they do not have any stability of their own. This helps to form secondary groups. It is important to note that pre-existing systems of stratification do have very negative effects when it comes to disaster survival, and the ability to rebuild a life post disaster. Groups that are lower on the socioeconomic scale fare much worse than their well off neighbor due to inadequate infrastructure and emergency preparedness. Race also plays a part in how families rebuild each other, and where they go to for aid and assistance, especially in hurricane situations. Preexisting discrimination plays a part in this, causing groups that have been discriminated against to look towards an established relief organization rather than their fellow neighbor. The systems used to fix disasters are also broken, and need to realize that not everything can be planned and predicted, and need to not assume disaster mythology.
Disaster mythology can be mitigated by employing better plans and by understanding the sociological response to disasters, instead of assuming the best in people. One cannot speak to how they will actually react in a disaster, unless they have previously been through a disaster.
I believe everyone has more confidence in their abilities until they have to use them. Preparing for a disaster does not take into account how you will actual feel and how you will actually have to act because there is no actual danger to provoke yourself and see how you need to react or change how you react to better your own emergency preparedness. I believe as a society, we always tend to assume the worst in people, rather than assume they will behave the same as everyone else. People seem to forgot we are all human, and that we all have the same basic needs. We expect when disaster hits for society to lash out in criminal behavior, and to forget about their fellow neighbor. Rather, almost everyone in a natural disaster acts the opposite, banding together as a whole.
Why do we, as a society, predict the worst in people? If we really think about it, why would people going through the same exact horrific situation want to make conditions worse? It is also unfortunate that socioeconomic status determines how well individuals fare in wake of disaster. Just because someone makes more money than someone else does not mean they should have to suffer more, and have their lives ripped open in wake of a disaster. It is very heartbreaking to know that a person is less likely to survive a disaster just because they make less money than their neighbor, or friend down the street.
In order to fix the issues our country faces in disasters, we have to fix our country in general. We need to work on equality, and work on our attitudes towards groups of people different than ourselves. We, as a country, need to focus on coming together, not tearing each other apart. If we only would focus on this, issues that occur not only during disasters, but in our daily lives would be mitigated. I hope that one day, we can live in a world where no one turns their back on their neighbor, and that people begin to see eye to eye and can live in mutual agreeance.