The Causes and Behavioral Consequences of Disasters: Models informed by the global experience 1950-2005

I finished the book, which is yet another Springer publication, yesterday. I gave it 2 stars on goodreads. If you want to work for FEMA or a similar organization at some point, this is probably the kind of book you’ll want to read. If you aren’t planning on doing that I’m not sure you need to read it.

Here’s part of what they write in the preface:

“Informed by a systematic study of a unique representative database of 360 disasters worldwide, spanning 1950–2005, we provide in this book a framework that can help us understand the causes of disasters. We also present a model of population behavior after these events. We intend these two inextricably linked models to be useful guides for public health disaster preparedness and response efforts.”

I think that in a way they promise more than they can keep. It turns out that no actual systematic testing of the ‘models’ takes place in the book; the ‘models’ are models in the sense that organizational design ‘models’ are models – these are not the type of models I usually talk about when I use the term ‘model’. There are no equations, no ways to test whether the models are any good or if factors are missing from the models. Most of the chapters deal only with one or two specific disasters. The second ‘model’, which deals with behavioural responses of populations to disasters, seems to me to be little but a bunch of (hard-to-test) postulates about how populations behave after a disaster has struck, supported by what basically amounts to little but anecdotal evidence. The only thing they use the data-base for is to pick out anecdotes to talk about. I should note that what’s bothering me is not mainly that I believe the models are necessarily wrong – I’m not sure they are, as they are general and comprehensive enough to be applied in a variety of contexts and seem to perform reasonably well in the contexts to which they are applied, in the sense that they provide one with a way of thinking about the matters at hand – it’s rather that the ‘models’ are too squishy. Naturally a huge problem here is that one disaster is very different from another (you try to come up with a good model which one might be able to use to compare a suicide bomb attack with an outbreak of cholera, identifying common elements and decision-relevant parameters…) and so if you want to say something about disasters in general you can’t really say all that much – this problem is hard to get around and I’m sure the authors have thought a great deal about it before starting out. Some might then argue that the authors were too ambitious, whereas others might argue that this level of analysis is the only kind you can even try to apply here so one should not fault them for at least trying.

It’s not all bad and some analytically important distinctions are made along the way which I had never given any thought. I learned some stuff from reading this book. Some quotes and a few comments:

“Several disciplines have come to agree that the initial hazard, whether it be natural, technological, or human-made, is not an isolated predictor of the events or outcomes to follow. Rather, preexisting characteristics of the affected region intersect with the hazard to shape the magnitude of the consequences of the hazard [1–3]. These preexisting characteristics can produce adverse consequences [4–6] but can also mitigate the consequences of hazards [3, 7–10]. We use here the term “vulnerabilities” for the former, and “capacities” for the latter. […]

Our model of disaster development […] consists of three stages. First, the context in which a disaster strikes is characterized by vulnerabilities and capacities. Features of the underlying context rest on a vulnerability–capacity continuum and their role as vulnerabilities or capacities depends on their influence in exacerbating, or protecting against, the adverse consequences of hazards that affect regions and populations. Second, a hazard occurs that intersects with existing vulnerabilities and capacities, defining the severity of the disaster. Temporally the vulnerabilities and capacities predate the hazard, although, in the case of chronic hazards, the hazards themselves may shape the underlying vulnerabilities and capacities. Third, intermittent stressors and intermittent protectors act coincident with, or soon after, the hazard. They become apparent only after the hazard initiates, and have the potential to enhance or mitigate the severity of disaster outcomes. [Intermittent stressors and intermittent protectors] are neutral preexisting characteristics that will act as a vulnerability or capacity only in the presence of an external stressor (the hazard).”

The book spends several chapters applying the framework outlined above to specific disasters (e.g. the Vargas tragedy; the New York City Subway Fire in December 1990; the 1950 earthquake in Cuzco, Peru) identifying specific vulnerabilities and capacities that played a role in the specific disasters as well as intermittent stressors and -protectors of importance (to give an example, during the 1950 Peru earthquake, almost a third of all of Cuzco’s inhabitants happened to be watching a soccer game in Cuzco’s brand new stadium when the earthquake hit. If not for that intermittent protector, the number of victims may well have been much, much higher – the stadium handled the earthquake very well, but many of those people’s homes were destroyed by the earthquake). The second half of the book adds to the analysis population behavioural response to disasters. Some more quotes:

“we argue here that rather than being chaotic or unpredictable, population behavior after disasters is rational and predictable and emerges from the interaction between a hazard and its context that has been discussed throughout this book. […] 1960s. While early accounts of this behavior depicted post-disaster behavior as “panic” and “irrational,” [1] later analysts have shifted to recognize, as we do here, that post-disaster behavior is “organized” and “predictable” [2, 3].

Understanding the progression of population behavior after disasters represents an important element in disaster preparedness and response. Anticipating the timing and nature of population behavior could allow for better synchronization between institutional efforts to restore normalcy with a population’s immediate and long-term needs. […]

We suggest that there are five progressive stages of post-disaster population behavior. We summarize each stage here and then discuss each stage in more detail in subsequent chapters. Stage one is characterized by group preservation behaviors. At this time the compact group, or the group of people directly affected by the hazard, is the focus. Initial reactions and behaviors are motivated by intimate contact with the hazard and will be characterized by fear and anxiety, information seeking and disseminating behavior, and actions toward group preservation. […]
In stage two, population preservation and altruism emerge. During this period, members of the compact group, now reassured that their immediate safety is secured, work with persons who were not directly affected by the hazard to rescue and provide aid to the immediate victims. This stage moves beyond the initial group preservation behaviors of the compact group and engages a population that is only indirectly affected by the hazard. This latter group bridges the gap between the compact group and the general population, helping disseminate information about the hazard and developing disaster to the general community. Here too, information- seeking behaviors are prevalent, while population preservation actions manifest. […]
At stage three, internalizing the disaster begins. Both members of the compact group and those in the general population begin to internalize the disaster, adapting to the post-hazard environment. Narratives of the hazard are constructed in an attempt to understand what transpired and why it did. What was previously considered a “normal” activity may not be appropriate in the post-disaster context, leading to changes in routine behaviors. Disaster survivors may ask themselves who or what was responsible for what they went through. […]
Stage four marks the onset of externalizing. Externalizing is an attempt to address the emotions and vulnerabilities identified during the internalizing process. At this time, compensation and relief may be sought, and actions are taken against perceived perpetrators of the disaster. In addition, during this stage populations begin to address vulnerabilities identified during the internalizing stage. […]
The final and fifth stage is marked by renormalization and adaptation. This is a potentially slow and protracted process in which the population identifies and acts according to new norms that are appropriate to the altered post-disaster context. At this point, group adaptation occurs. New modes of behavior become dominant, while external behaviors are normalized.” […]

“It is […] important to note here that the model proposed is a model of population behavior. We acknowledge that there will be a range of individual responses to hazards and we accept and expect there to be individuals in any disaster whose behaviors do not correspond with what we propose. In the subsequent chapters, we elaborate on each of these stages and present key case examples illustrating each stage of population behavior.”

November 13, 2013 - Posted by | Books

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