Sunday, 8 May 2011

Forty-eight Common Misconceptions About Disaster

Myth 1: Disasters are truly exceptional events.
Reality: They are a normal part of daily life and in very many cases are repetitive events.

Myth 2: Disasters cause a great deal of chaos and cannot possibly be managed systematically.
Reality: There are excellent theoretical models of how disasters function and how to manage them. After more than 75 years of research in the field the general elements of disaster are extremely well known, and they tend to repeat themselves from one disaster to the next.

Myth 3: Disasters kill people without respect for social class or economic status.
Reality: The poor and marginalised are much more at risk of death than are rich people or the middle classes.

Myth 4: Earthquakes are commonly responsible for very high death tolls.
Reality: Collapsing buildings are responsible for the majority of deaths in seismic disasters. Whereas it is not possible to stop earthquakes, it is possible to construct anti-seismic buildings and to organize human activities in such a way as to minimize the risk of death. In addition, the majority of earthquakes do not cause high death tolls.

Myth 5: People can survive for many days when trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building.
Reality: The vast majority of people brought out alive from the rubble are saved within 24, or perhaps even 12, hours of the impact.

Myth 6: When disaster strikes panic is a common reaction.
Reality: Most people behave rationally in disaster. While panic is not to be ruled out entirely, it is of such limited importance that some leading disaster sociologists regard it as insignificant or unlikely.

Myth 7: People will flee in large numbers from a disaster area.
Reality: Usually there is a "convergence reaction" and the area fills up with people. Few of the survivors will leave and even obligatory evacuations will be short-lived.

Myth 8: After disaster has struck survivors tend to be dazed and apathetic.
Reality: Survivors rapidly get to work on the clear-up. Activism is much more common than fatalism (this is the so-called "therapeutic community"). In the worst possible cases only 15-30 per cent of victims show passive and dazed reactions.

Myth 9: After disaster people will not make rational decisions and will therefore inevitably tend to do the wrong thing unless authority guides them.
Reality: People make decisions on the basis of the information that they are able to obtain and their ability to interpret it. Within this compass, most decision-making can be judged rational.

Myth 10: Disasters usually give rise to widespread, spontaneous manifestations of antisocial behaviour.
Reality: Generally, they are characterized by great social solidarity, generosity and self-sacrifice, perhaps even heroism.

Myth 11: Looting is a common and serious problem after disasters.
Reality: The phenomenon of looting is rare and limited in scope. It mainly occurs when there are strong preconditions (i.e. a disaster is hardly necessary to start it off), as when a community is already deeply divided.

Myth 12: In disaster, people resort to violence to protect their own interests.
Reality: The 'therapeutic community' is common: people have a greater tendency to help each other than in normal times.

Myth 13: Martial law must be imposed after disaster in order to stop society from breaking down altogether.
Reality: The imposition of martial law after disaster is extremely rare and implies that normal mechanisms of government were never effective in any way.

Myth 14: A strong military presence is required in areas affected by disaster in order to discourage law-breakers.
Reality: Emergency response should have made a transition from a military activity to a fully civilian one. As increases in lawlessness are seldom a serious problem as a result of disaster, the police are usually able to deal with public order problems without the need to call for military assistance.

Myth 15: The mass media create an accurate picture of the disasters on which they report.
Reality: There is a pervasive tendency for the media to exaggerate and distort disaster-related information. Very rarely are journalists ever expert on disasters and crises. Their lack of expertise is often easily identifiable in the quality of their reporting. They must also provide the sort of information which viewers, listeners or readers want to have, which may add further bias to the content of their reports.

Myth 16: Unburied dead bodies constitute a health hazard.
Reality: Not even advanced decomposition causes a significant health hazard. Hasty burial demoralizes survivors and upsets arrangements for death certification, funeral rites, and, where needed, autopsy.

Myth 17: Disease epidemics are an almost inevitable result of the disruption and poor health caused by major disasters.
Reality: Generally, the level of epidemiological surveillance and health care in the disaster area is sufficient to stop any possible disease epidemic from occurring. However, the rate of diagnosis of diseases may increase as a result of improved health care.

Myth 18: Great quantities and assortments of medicines should be sent to disaster areas.
Reality: The only medicines that are needed are those used to treat specific pathologies, have not reached their sell-by date, can be properly conserved in the disaster area, and can be properly identified in terms of their pharmacological constituents. Any other medicines are, not only useless, but potentially dangerous.

Myth 19: Field hospitals are particularly useful for treating people injured by sudden impact disasters.
Reality: Field hospitals are usually set up too late to treat the injured and end up providing general medicine and continuity of care. As the transport and operation of field hospitals tends to be expensive and logistically challenging, in some cases it may be more efficient to attempt to restore or augment existing hospitals in the area, even if they are significantly damaged.

Myth 20: In the aftermath of disaster mass vaccination is an excellent way of stopping the spread of diseases.
Reality: Whereas the carefully targeted vaccination of specific groups (e.g. children, doctors and nurses) may be effective, indiscriminate mass vaccination is wasteful, as records cannot be kept properly, follow-up vaccination is difficult to administer and people move around too much for the initiative to work properly.

Myth 21: Sanitary cordons should be set up around disaster areas to stop the spread of disease.
Reality: Sanitary cordons rarely work. The movement of people and goods are too complex and chaotic to be able to control the entrance to and exit from the area in such a way as to disinfect people, which in any case may be a misguided approach. In most cases sanitary cordons do nothing for health but significantly inhibit relief efforts. The better alternative is to set up an epidemiological observatory and practise specific measures exactly where anomalous or dangerous conditions are identified.

Myth 22: Dead bodies, survivors, streets, rubble and other things should be sprayed with disinfectant to stop the spread of disease.
Reality: This common and popular measure wastes large quantities of disinfectant and does nothing whatsoever for public health.

Myth 23: There is usually a shortage of resources when disaster occurs and this prevents them from being managed effectively.
Reality: The shortage, if it occurs, is almost always very temporary. There is more of a problem in deploying resources well and using them efficiently than in acquiring them. Often there is also a problem of coping with a superabundance of certain types of resource.

Myth 24: In a disaster aftermath the prices of essential goods always rise steeply
Reality: Profiteering does occur in disaster aftermaths, but it is far from being the norm.

Myth 25: Any kind of aid and relief is useful after disaster providing it is supplied quickly enough.
Reality: Hasty and ill-considered relief initiatives tend to create chaos. Only certain types of technical assistance, goods and services will be required. Not all useful resources that existed in the area before the disaster will be destroyed. Donation of unusable materials or manpower consumes resources of organization and accommodation that could more profitably be used to reduce the toll of the disaster.

Myth 26: In order to manage a disaster well it is necessary to accept all forms of aid that are offered.
Reality: It is much better to limit acceptance of donations to goods and services that are actually needed in the disaster area.

Myth 27: One should donate used clothes to the victims of disasters.
Reality: This often leads to accumulations of huge quantities of useless garments that victims cannot or will not wear.

Myth 28: Companies, corporations, associations and governments are always very generous when invited to send aid and relief to disaster areas.
Reality: They may be, but in the past disaster areas have been used as dumping grounds for outdated medicines, obsolete equipment, and unsaleable goods, all under the cloak of apparent generosity.

Myth 29: Technology will save the world from disaster.
Reality: The problem of disasters is largely a social one. We already have considerable technological resources, but they are poorly distributed and often ineffectively used. In addition, technology is a potential source of vulnerability as well as a means of reducing it.

Myth 30: Tsunamis are tidal waves.
Reality: Tsunamis are seismic, volcanic or landslide-induced sea waves with a completely different form and mode of propagation to bores or other waves caused by tides. Their coastal impact may be slightly influenced by tides, but not their causes.

Myth 31: Earthquake magnitude is measured on the Richter scale.
Reality: 'Local magnitude' ML, Charles F. Richter's scale, is inaccurate at high values and so has been replaced by body wave magnitude, moment magnitude and other more robust scales.

Myth 32: There is such a thing as "earthquake weather".
Reality: The popular credence that earthquakes occur when there is close, muggy weather has no basis of fact. Numerous scientific studies have sought to identify atmospheric conditions as earthquake precursors, but the only substantial success has been achieved regarding the release of halogens into the atmosphere, which causes light to be filtered and refracted.

Myth 33: We are well organised to face a pandemic or CBRN attack.
Reality: In most countries, including the richer and larger ones, preparedness is at best patchy and at worst seriously lacking.

Myth 34: In a biological terrorism attack or pandemic prophylaxis will be effective and efficient.

Reality: Stockpiles of antidotes and vaccines are insufficient, and so are isolation wards, field response units, decontamination units, and training for responders and physicians. It may also be difficult to achieve timely identification of the pathogen or toxin involved.

Myth 35: CBRN decontamination is a solved problem.
Reality: Many questions remain about the protocols and procedures for decontamination, including reagents and cleansers to be used, number of people who could be decontaminated per unit time, and whether to remove all clothes before being decontaminated.

Myth 36: The main effects of a CBRN attack or pandemic would necessarily be medical.
Reality: Disruption of daily life could potentially have even greater consequences (in logistical, social, psychological and monetary terms) than the medical effects of the crisis.

Myth 37: In a CBRN attack or pandemic it will be easy to avoid contamination of hospitals and other medical centres.
Reality: For certain virulent pathogens or toxins, cross-contamination would be extremely hard to avoid without absolute order and very elaborate measures which are not likely to be forthcoming.

Myth 38: It will be easy to identify the pathogen, chemical agent or isotope involved in a CBRN attack.
Reality: There are so many potential pathogens, agents and isotopes that high-level laboratory analysis way be needed, which would cause problems of transportation of samples and rapidity of analyses.

Myth 39: Anthrax is a white powder.
Reality: Bacillus anthracis is a colourless, almost invisible substance. Weaponised spores are likely to be even less easier to see than naturally grown ones.

Myth 40: Panic and irrational behaviour are inevitable consequences of a CBRN terrorism attack.
Reality: In disasters of all kinds most people make an effort to behave rationally and make rational decisions. This is antithetical to panic. However, if people do not have adequate information, their decision making may defy rational analysis.

Myth 41: Trends in terrorism are highly irregular but show a very substantial increase in recent times.
Reality: Although the locus of terrorist activity tends to shift from one place to another, the sum total of attacks and their effects, has remained stable for several decades and shows only a modest increase, if any.

Myth 42: Emergency responders will not report to work in a disaster, they will protect their families instead.
Reality: It is not common for there to be mass absenteeism among key workers during the aftermath of disasters. On the contrary, people tend to have an enhanced sense of duty.

Myth 43: Emergency responders will not know what to do during a disaster or crisis.
Reality: It is to be hoped that training and experience have turned emergency responders and disaster managers into highly capable professionals.

Myth 44: Disasters always happen to someone else.
Reality: The 'syndrome of personal invulnerability' tends to mislead people into believing that they are in some way immune from disasters. It is not so.

Myth 45: Business continuity management only applies to the private sector.
Reality: The public sector (municipal, regional and national governments and associated agencies) must be able to weather disaster and continue its activities just as any private company should. There is thus no reason why BCM should not apply to public bodies.

Myth 46: In disasters there are heroes and villains.
Reality: There may indeed be villains, although the 'therapeutic community' that prevails in the aftermath tends to mitigate their effect, but most people who act selflessly and in favour of others are not strictly heroes but are just doing their jobs as best they can. When people try to be heroes the results tend to destroy the teamwork on which disaster response depends.

Myth 47: Disaster is always a negative experience.
Reality: While it is true that the majority of people affected by disaster suffer, in some cases terribly, there are those who profit by disaster (either legitimately or illicitly), for example by selling prefabricated dwellings. The 'window of opportunity' that disaster often opens can be used in a positive way to increase resilience against future events. Finally, in the best instances, reconstruction can produce a better, safer, more attractive environment than existed before the disaster.

Myth 48: Heavy rains can cause mudslides.
Reality: It may be partially true that mud slides, but it mostly flows. In strict terms the mass movements in question are flow-slides, not quite the 'mudslides' beloved of the mass media.


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