Today’s book review is The Unthinkable – Who survies when disaster strikes – and why by Amanda Ripley.
When I was in year 5 at school, I shocked my teacher by writing in a book review that I liked a book which involved an earthquake (Ballet shoes for Anna) because “I like books about disasters”. I like to think that it’s not so much ghoulishness, but enjoying reading about resilience, and triumph over adversity.
This book, The Unthinkable, is a comprehensive look at how people behave in disasters. Ripley talks through a person’s three main stages in dealing with a disaster (mostly man made disasters – two of her examples involve gun battles, and her inspiration for this book came from talking to many World Trade Center survivors). She separates the books into three stages of survival arc – delay – the stage when people deny to themselves that something is wrong, deliberation – how our body and most primitive instincts take over and how some people override them, and the decisive moment – where people act – either constructively or (far less commonly) destructively by panicking.
The major emotion in this book is optimism. Every time Ripley has interviewed survivors, she has been fascinated by how much resource individuals can have, and how those who have trained themselves can overcome their body’s tendency to shut down in a crisis (a sensible and powerful evolutionary mechanism shared by most animals).
The other main theme in this book is anger at how little governments trust their citizens. She points out many ways in which people can be better informed, to help themselves train for a crisis. As she points out, in a disaster, at the crucial time, you are on your own. Some stories of survival from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, for example, come from communities or individuals who recognised that a shaking earth, or retreating sea was a powerful signal of a coming tsunami. That kind of behaviour comes from education and training. But after 9/11 very little of the money was spent in ways that might help individuals if a disaster occurred. The pat response tends to be that people will panic if they are given information about possible disasters. But Ripley shows that in disaster after disaster, people are orderly, cooperative, and when given good information, astonishingly sensible about how they deal with their situation.
I was struck, while reading this book, that in nearly 20 years working in Sydney’s CBD, I have only once been in a fire drill that took me all the way out of the building. And about half that time I’ve worked in buildings where the fire stairs are alarmed, and so can only be used in an emergency. One of the crucial things in the World Trade Centre (and any evacuation) is familiarity with the escape route. The more automatic the appropriate action is, the easier it is for your conscious mind to overwhelm your unconscious mind which is freezing you to the spot. But its rarer and rarer for a building to have fire stair access in my experience. Only available in old unrefurbished buildings like the one I currently work in.
Ripley points out that people are much slower in a real disaster than the planners have expected them to be (In the World Trade Centre on 9/11, it took people a minute, on average, per floor to evacuate, which is twice as long as standard engineering codes predict – with the buildings only half full). But rather than working out why that is, people who design buildings and aeroplanes tend to assume away reality – it shouldn’t really take as long as it does. But people are polite – they will let people on lower floors into the queues, they aren’t necessarily wearing sensible clothes (the stairwells of the World Trade Centre had piles of stiletto shoes all the way down) and they get tired.
And government planners tend to be overly concerned with worrying people. In Britain, a House of Commons committee suggested that aircraft cabin simulators be placed in airport waiting areas, so bored passengers could, if they wanted to, practice using emergency exits, oxygen masks, etc. But the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority threw it out without any proper consideration at all.
The message of this book is ultimately hopeful. If we think through what might happen if disaster struck, and what our options are, wherever we are (a tall building, an aircraft, a ship) , we have a much better chance of making the best of our situation if it does happen. We would make a significant difference to our chances of survival, and how well we would cope, psychologically, afterwards.
Finishing this book just before bed made me wide awake for another two hours; not with horror, or fear, but with adrenaline from reliving ordinary people doing extraordinary things. But I highly recommend it just the same.