'People are a resource'

The same flood that washes away homes also washes away the social glue that holds us together, said sociologist Dennis Mileti.

BY SUSAN KIM | PRINCETON, N.J. | March 28, 2004



"Six months not six hours after cataclysmic events, the indicators of stress show up."

—Dennis Mileti


The same flood that washes away our homes also washes away the social glue that holds us together, said sociologist Dennis Mileti.

"A disaster transforms what the human community is like," explained the well-known lecturer and author, speaking to representatives of the nation's faith-based disaster responders at a Forum on Domestic Disaster Ministry hosted by the Church World Service (CWS) Emergency Response Program at the Princeton Theological Seminary this week.

In non-disaster times, the social glue that holds us together is very impersonal, Mileti said, "then a disaster comes along and washes all that away. Human beings begin relating to each other as whole human beings, like you'd relate to your brother."

A post-disaster community is a different kind of society, he observed. "That's why we see incidents of crime plummet in disasters."

When representatives from response organizations arrive on the scene, they need to be careful with what Mileti calls "the fire of human altruism."

A "here, fill out this form" mentality can, well, be like taking a bucket of water and throwing it on those flames.

That's why "local volunteers should be allowed to volunteer," he said. "It's part of the healing. People are not a problem in disasters. They're a resource. Organizations are the problem."

Especially organizations that come in with their own interest and that's inevitable, Mileti said. "That's why presidents fly over disasters. That's just the way it is."

And it's not until long after the politicians fly over a disaster that some large unmet needs happen in communities, he added, "months and months later after everyone who came to town almost everyone went home.

"Six months not six hours after cataclysmic events, the indicators of stress show up."

Mileti and other sociologists have seen, six months in the wake of disasters, a doubling of deaths by heart attack and stroke, increased psychiatric hospital admissions, more attempted suicides and more ulcers.

For faith-based groups that often help people cope with the long-term impact of disasters, Mileti had bittersweet news: "public expectations in our nation regarding disaster response are rising and they will continue to rise."

Expectations might and probably will rise beyond the groups' ability to provide what people need.

The good news is that disasters bring out the best in humanity, Mileti said, and he's got a sociological twist of humor to bring that in perspective: "There may have been species of human beings that didn't respond that way but they died out."

Helping others reaching out to one's neighbor after a disaster is therapeutic. "It's natural," he said. "It's part of the human process."

But sometimes responders tend to thwart it, he said.

Mileti's colleague, Lee Clarke, agreed. "We have to view the public as an asset not as a problem."

Clarke, a Rutgers University sociologist, said government officials tend to view people as irrational and emotional.

But in fact the images of panic in disaster movies aren't accurate, he said. "If disaster movies showed how people actually behave, they would be documentaries and would be really boring. The image of panic is a myth."

One of the biggest reasons there wasn't even more death after the World Trade Center attacks was that people didn't panic, he added. "They helped complete strangers.

"We talk about heroic, selfless acts, and we say 'how unusual.' It might be selfless and heroic but it's not unusual. I take solace in how altruistically the community binds together."

Sometimes that impromptu binding together translates into effective emergency response, he said. In the wake of the World Trade Center attacks, some half million people got off of Lower Manhattan by boat. "It was the biggest waterborne evacuation in history in New York City. It happened without official plans. People came to rescue other people. They came in sailboats, ferries, motorboats, you name it.

"Too many of our leaders believe people will respond poorly. If you believe people will respond poorly, you withhold information."

Residents, neighbors, teachers, church leaders all have the capability to be first responders, said Clarke. "Twenty percent of the American population is in schools half the year. First grade teachers become first responders."

Mileti and Clarke both remarked how meaningful it was to share their research with faith-based groups.

"I'm 58 years old and I can remember a time when no one cared about what a sociologist had to say," said Mileti, who was director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado. He edited "Disasters by Design," which surveys the history of disaster management and describes how communities can become disaster-resilient.

Clarke writes and lectures about organizations, culture and disasters, focusing on organizational failure, leadership, terrorism, panic, civil defense, evacuation and community response. His most recent book is "Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster."

Mileti is based in Boulder, Colo., while Clarke lives in Metuchen, N.J.

In keeping with the sociologists' findings, CWS leaders said they entitled this week's forum "Do No Harm" a reminder that the primary responsibility of faith-based responders is to assist communities in disaster according to the requirements they define for themselves.


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