What would you do in a disaster?

What would you do in a disaster? Source: hide caption

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I've always been a big fan of movies like Twister and Dante's Peak and The Day After Tomorrow. You see mankind pushed to the limit from the safety and comfort of a movie theater, or your living room. But when I watch these movies, I can't help but wonder how I would respond if I ever found myself in the middle of torrential floods or a harrowing tornado or an explosive volcano. I envision what I might do, or fail to do, in that crucial moment when escape is possible.

Journalist Amanda Ripley, who covers disasters for Time magazine, says that most people facing disaster act in surprising ways. It's not the hysterical, every-man-for-himself mentality we often see in the movies. On the contrary, people often remain surprisingly calm. She interviewed survivors from Hurricane Katrina and the attacks on the World Trade Center — as well as survivors of fires, plane crashes, stampedes, massacres and earthquakes — to find out what they learned from the experience. The result is a new book called The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why. She joins us today to talk about how to think clearly — and get out alive — in crisis situations.

And we want to hear from disaster survivors. If you've survived a fire, flood, earthquake, shooting spree, tsunami, or plane crash — what went through your head at the time? And how'd you get out alive?



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On Sept.12, 1977, our community in Kansas City, Mo. was devasted by the "100 Year" flood, which happened on the nite that the Kansas City Royals monopolized our city during the National Baseball Playoffs.
I heard the warnings over the radio for a 'flash flood'....but my attention was diverted by the games on TV. When I saw water backing up in my sinks and tub, I grabbed my 5 yr. old, opened the heavy door and a wall of rushing, muddy waters knocked us down....we swam out as waters swirreled around us and lifted parked cars and other fixtures. We swam across the street seeking shelter in a large apt. bldg., but the game was going on, and the apt. residents were drinking and celebrating in the hallway....when I rang the bell for access, someone came to the door window, saw that we were strangers and soaking....they wouldn't open the door and went on about their revelry. This bldg. had many cars piled up against it when the waters receded some 48 hrs. later. 26 people died in our community because of disbelief and distraction!

Sent by Maureen | 3:25 PM | 7-29-2008

In aircraft formations the leader always briefs the wingman on what is expected of him.
The wonderful Air Force General, Daniel "Chappie" James told of his briefing which instructed the wingman to only reply by an affirmative "Two" or in a real emergency of "Lead, you're on fire."
We've all had drills from kindergarten on that wasted our time, but at some point in our lives eventually we all get the message "Lead, you're on fire." and it's time to grab the ejection handle and punch out.

Sent by Gordon Flygare | 3:28 PM | 7-29-2008

Many people are trained to stand in a doorway during an earthquake. However, in the Loma Prietta earchquake, was counter intuitive. Many people driving on the lower level of the elevated Cyprus Structure in Oakland, deliberately parked under the large cross beams between columns. The beam/column connections failed and these beams became the "pinch points" and many cars were crushed flat at the center of the cars, when they would have been protected if they were a few feet ahead or behind.

Sent by Gary Wheeler, AIA, LEED AP | 3:29 PM | 7-29-2008

I am about 2/3 of the way through Ms. Ripley's book and find it absolutely amazing. I live in Cincinnati, just across the river from where the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire occurred (as well as home to the tragic "crowd rush" at a Who concert in the 1970s that killed some folks in a manner similar to the events that occur during the Mecca pilgrimage). During a recent trip to South Carolina, my partner and I were walking the beach and came to what appeared to be a shallow eddy running out from the marshlands across the beach to the open ocean. As he stepped in, he immediately went under and was immediately pulled out towards the sea. My first reaction was to grab for the camera, which he was holding, but almost as quickly I grabbed for him and managed, after some struggling, to pull him out of the riptide. Our camera was ruined, but I managed to save him. While reading the book, I totally "get" (though I don't understand) that predisposition to "save things" as opposed to people or ourselves. I want to thank her for her insights and for making me physically count the number of seats between me and the nearest exit each time I'm on an airplane.

Sent by Mike Boberg | 3:30 PM | 7-29-2008

When I was in the Army a story was told to us regarding reactions to extreme stress.

It went like this: The Soviets took some troops and left them in the middle of a desolate place and gave each a card.

On the front of the card it said that they were to wait as they were going to be a part of an experiment testing nuclear bombs and how soldiers reacted to a bomb.

After the soldiers read the cards they differentiated into basically three groups:
1. 1/3 got very agitated and worried and ran around looking for escape.
2. 1/3 sat on the ground stunned essentially giving up.
3. The last third was calm and after reading the card turned it over where it said that they were to talk to no one, that this was only a psychological test and would be over in an hour.

They really didn't go too deep into the reasons for this, but they were attempting to show how over/under reacting won't help, but remaining calm and exploring your options is the best way to handle a situation.

Sent by Chris Silva | 3:32 PM | 7-29-2008

People who do not react in an emergency has always been intriguing to me. A year ago I was visiting a friend one evening when we suddenly discovered her house was on fire. Indeed the place was in flames. I became aware that my friend was standing quietly, seemed to be somewhere else, and was completely immobile until I stamped my foot on the floor and said, "Go dial 911 NOW! GO!" I am a former tribal casino director and we learned quickly that slot machine players often would not leave their machine even if there were actual flames. We resorted to turning the power off in order to get their attention and make them cooperate. This is not a new phenomenon in casino gaming, either, as most floor personnel could tell you when situations such as these occur.

Sent by Micheal or just use my nick "Dr Loco" | 3:34 PM | 7-29-2008

In my early teens, my father and I were stranded while snowmobiling in the Wasatch Mountains of Northern Utah for about 18 hours. Contrary to conventional wisdom to stay put, we abandoned our snowmobiles and walked for 14 hours to get ourselves out. With the companionship of my father, it was not a particularly alarming condition - and we survived. It was a great advantage to be active in "doing all we could do." Not many years later, a friend of mine and his father were stranded in the same canyon - and spent 5-7 days waiting for rescue. Unfortunately, also suffered frostbite to their extremities and possibly amputation. I agree with Amanda - do all you can for yourself.

Sent by Paul | 3:41 PM | 7-29-2008

As many sailors can tell you. Every person on the ship is a firefighter, flood combatant, and rescue worker. There are numerous training classes and drills to prepare for the worst case scenario. Even so, I heard numerous stories while in training classes, or from folks that had seen it first hand, where there's the one guy that stands frozen when facing the unexpected. None of us know how we'll react till we are face to face with disaster. The best chance is keeping cool while utilizing training and instinct to survive, or at least help others survive.

Sent by Jim Stephenson | 10:40 AM | 7-30-2008

I heard only portions of the Amanda Ripley interview yesterday about her book about responses to disasters. Attempts to call the station resulted in busy signals.

I was employed by a company that had 180 employees on the 90th floor of Tower 2, the South Tower. At that time I was involved in a project across the river in Jersey City. The two previous Tuesdays I has status meetings with my project team on the 90th floor, but had cancelled the meeting that fateful Tuesday morning. I lost two members of my project team.

In seeking to contact our employees after the disaster to determine their whereabouts, I discovered two different responses to disaster, based on the person's past experience with disaster.

One member, originally from Korea, when asked if he recalled who had evacuated with him prior to the tower collapse, he could not recall anyone. My feeling is that his past experience during the Korean war made his response one of saving his life first, as soon as the alert was sounded.

This attitude was later confirmed by another colleague (not involved in this disaster) but who, as a teen and part of the Greek resistance, said he still today responded with trepidation upon the backfire from a car or another explosive retort.

Our national experience, from childhood with fire drills and such in schools and our places of employment, is one of complacency and "What, another drill?" We tend to ask questions about the alarm, being peeved about being disturbed in our work, and then respond to the situation.

As a result, we are probably the ones who are probably potential victims of a disaster.

Now, this is strictly my feeling but I think is a real consideration. We see most situations as these as "crying wolf" and take time to act.

Sent by Frank Kowalczyk | 6:10 PM | 7-30-2008