Sociologists study disasters

At a congressional briefing Monday, leading sociologists offered policymakers clear direction.

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, D.C. | October 28, 2003

At a congressional briefing Monday, leading sociologists offered policymakers clear direction: Before a disaster, give credible, equitable warnings. After a disaster, encourage response that's woven into each community's social fabric.

Easier said than done, explained Dr. Lee Clarke, author of Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas.

Clarke who studies organizations, culture and disasters offered historical examples of how the government's poor communication about risk can worsen a disaster's impact.

In 1894, a smallpox outbreak hit Milwaukee. The government's response was so inflexible it eventually caused month-long urban rioting.

"Public health officials wore uniforms which scared the daylights out of immigrants," Clarke said. During a time of great immigrant fear of government authority in general, uniformed health officials knocked on doors and often forcibly removed people to isolation hospitals or vaccinated them against their will.

Immigrants responded by not reporting cases of smallpox, and by mobbing the isolation hospital's horse-drawn wagons. There were 1,100 cases of smallpox and almost 300 deaths.

Clarke compared Milwaukee's smallpox outbreak to New York City's bout with the disease in 1947, where "the government worked through local churches and local organizations and people lined up and got vaccinated," he said. Health officials honestly and promptly reported to the public "every new case of smallpox," he said. There were 12 cases of smallpox and two deaths.

People don't typically react to disaster by panicking, agreed Clarke and other sociologists. As the World Trade Center was collapsing, one police officer was quoted as saying, "People were coming out in droves. I could see the panic in their eyes."

But what people were exhibiting, pointed out Clarke, was "perfectly rational behavior running away from a collapsing World Trade Center."

Inside the burning building, "it wasn't panic if you look carefully at the string of people coming down the stairwells," he added. "People were saving lives. People don't panic the way the movies often portray."

Instead, people often respond with creativity, guts and selflessness. Clarke asked: "Who are first responders? Police and fire are official responders. By the time they get to a disaster scene, most people who are going to die are already dead. The person next to you is a first responder. Perfect strangers against their self-interest will put themselves in great danger. This matters."

The human tendency to help others also rises up collectively after disaster strikes when groups emerge that creatively begin to address people's needs, added Dr. Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Research Center at the University of Colorado.

Author of Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States, Tierney said people commonly form emergent multi-organizational networks (known affectionately by sociologists as EMONs) after disasters. Such groups, she said, are able to handle response with "resilience" and "adaptability," even in a "turbulent environment."

Although Tierney did not mention any specific groups, her points may offer some academic weight to the mission of Church World Service's (CWS) emergency response program. CWS and its partnering faith-based disaster response organizations foster development of long-term interfaith recovery groups in the wake of disasters. Each recovery committee has a unique structure and addresses needs that differ from community to community, disaster to disaster.

And that's just how it should be, explained Tierney, because this type of network is "superior to hierarchy and superior to a centralized control structure even though command and control language is used in talking about disasters."

The government, Tierney and other sociologists agreed, needs to respect and nurture these budding local organizations, because they meet people's needs in an existing and important social context. "Emerging groups shouldn't be left out," Tierney summed up it's how we "take special care to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in our society."

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