Posts Tagged ‘emergency communications’

Do you believe in the Easter Bunny? The edge of the world? Superman? If you’ve outgrown these myths, perhaps it’s time to look at some disaster myths and see if these have also been left behind. We’ll start with a quick true/false quiz, and see how you do.

Disaster Myths Quiz – True or False?

1)      T/F         Panic is a common reaction to a disaster situation.

2)      T/F         Looting and violence are a major concern after natural disasters.

3)      T/F         Famous newspapers are a good source for information about disaster events.

4)      T/F         In a disaster, officials screen information released to the public about the extent of the tragedy and the limits of official disaster response.

5)      T/F         The federal government will quickly respond and assume management of any major disaster in the United States.

6)      T/F         After a large disaster, local emergency responders (firemen, ambulance, police) handle most of the search, rescue, and firefighting.

7)      T/F         Between FEMA and insurance, any damage to your house and property will likely be covered.

8)      T/F         When a large disaster happens in the United States, donations of supplies and large numbers of volunteers are needed quickly.

For every true answer, say out loud “I promise to be better prepared”. That’s your punishment, because all the answers are false! Let’s take a look at the real truths behind the “falses”.


Do people panic in disasters?

True panic is very much the exception, not the rule. Some respond with distracted behavior, slow motion or even freezing, but these are usually self-limited. People appropriately flee from danger – this is not the same as hysteria and panic. The most common disaster behavior, however, is that people help each other. Some take on leadership roles, others problem solve, some are rescuers, and some act maternal – but almost everyone helps, both immediately and during recovery. Maybe we are still naturally somewhat tribal.

Looting and violence happens after disasters but is also uncommon. Areas with higher crime and socioeconomic challenges before disaster are at higher risk.  Not all “looters” take luxury items. Some take food and supplies used for survival. Is that acceptable or is it looting? In past disasters, people were reportedly detained for looting when actually trying to salvage their belongings. Our media tend to play up violence, but “after-analysis” suggests that documented incidents of crime after disaster remain low, at least in this country (despite Katrina stories). When looting occurs, stores, not houses, are the usual targets. Bottom line – don’t stay home to protect your stuff when it is safer to evacuate!

2875165173_691d0e970f_nPublic information and media myths – the big offenders!

Speaking of media – their business is to entertain readers, listeners, and watchers. Americans like exciting disasters – the worse the tragedy, the more we watch. As a result, initial media releases often overestimate deaths and injuries, and they emphasize stories about violence, unhappy citizens, and how the government is screwing up disaster response. Other than occasional “human interest” stories, good news in disaster recovery just doesn’t get many viewers. Remember to take what you read or hear with a very large grain of salt.

How should you get accurate information? I would like to say public officials – the ones actually handling emergency management response (not politicians – can you ever truly trust what they say?)  Erroneous information was given out for public disaster announcements in the past. Officials worried that a panicked public would interfere with emergency responders, block roads, or put themselves at risk. Recent studies suggest this is a poor plan. The public does better with accurate information, even when it’s bad news. Distrust of government increases when official information proves false, with an increase  in panic, crime and anti-social behavior .

Tweet, tweet

What about social media – the new buzz topic in emergency management! Everyone is trying to decide how4247757731_8f94338cdd_n it should fit in. Clearly immense amounts of information can be shared this way, both among community members and between officials and the public. In fact, it may remind the government about honesty, because information will get out anyway. Just be sure to evaluate your source before you trust something on social media (similar to other news sources). Stay tuned as communities develop their plans for social media. In the meantime, another myth is the concept of requesting emergency assistance via social media. For now, with a few exceptions, if you tweet 911 or write for help on your Facebook page, don’t expect anyone to come! (One of my favorite bits of disaster humor is a video about this topic –  The IT Crowd:“Fire” .)

Who’s most important – FEMA, emergency responders, or your neighbors?

It’s good that people naturally help each other, because that’s who you will depend on. The biggest disaster myth of all is that professionals will help you. After all, aren’t they only a 911 call away! In a community wide disaster, there are simply not enough emergency responders to go around – providing they can even get to you with destruction of roads and bridges, damaged equipment, and loss of staff. Firemen can’t put out fires without water. Ambulance can only transport so many people. Hospitals get full. In a disaster, most search and rescue, first aid, sheltering, and supplies will come from your family and neighbors.

What about the famous FEMA? The federal program  assists your local response – it doesn’t take over. If a disaster occurs without warning, it may take a day or longer to even get to your area. In federally declared disasters, FEMA provides expertise and resources to local governments, who remain in charge. FEMA also helps with equipment, medical needs, and communications, and addresses damaged infrastructure.

We’ve all heard about FEMA disaster assistance. Do they pay if your house is destroyed? No way! Per their website, they “help with critical expenses that cannot be covered in other ways. This assistance is not intended to restore your damaged property to its condition before the disaster.” The Small Business Association provides low-interest homeowner disaster loans, but not cash. What about insurance? Better check your policy closely! Insurance does not cover earthquake or floods unless you purchased additional coverage for these disasters. Surviving a disaster can be very spendy, with only partial reimbursement available.

Disaster Supplies in Warehouse

Disaster Supplies in Warehouse

Volunteers – the more the merrier?

Since we all depend on non-professionals, shouldn’t everyone volunteer as quickly as possible after a disaster? Definitely not! Don’t load up the truck with supplies and drive hundreds of miles just because you feel a need to help (a common occurrence!). Volunteers require training, coordination, supplies, and shelter. If their skills don’t match the services needed, untrained volunteers actually cost valuable staff time and resources – and storing unnecessary supplies is a logistical nightmare. If you really want to volunteer, we need you. Just train in advance and wait for deployment. Otherwise, contact a well-established charity after a disaster and offer your services or supplies, then wait until they need you. Recovery and rebuilding continues for months to years, but volunteers and donations dry up within a few months. If you really want to help, save volunteering for several months down the road.

Do you have other favorite disaster myths? I suspect we’ll need part 2 of this topic somewhere down the road – I can think of 7 more myths just off the top of my head. Let me know if you have a favorite disaster myth to debunk, and I’ll include it the next time around.

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

P.S. A reader pointed out to me that my original inclusion of the god Zeus as a myth in the first line of this post could be considered offensive. I was unaware that there are current practitioners of Hellenism,  a traditional polytheistic religion and way of life, revolving around the Greek Gods.  I have therefore changed Zeus to “Superman”. S.S. 2-27-13