The Unthinkable: Who Survives When A Disaster Strikes – And Why

I recently read Amanda Ripley’s book “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When A Disaster Strikes – And Why”. The book explores some of recent history’s disasters and human responses to them. Ripley investigates reports on the incidents, conducts interviews with those who survived the events, and consults leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts to try to untangle the common human responses to disasters, in an effort to learn from the past.

She finds that rapid response to disaster situations are rare, and often a result of pre-programming or preparation on the individual’s part. Ripley identifies three main stages of the “survival arc” we all go through in responding to mortal peril: denial, deliberation and the “decisive moment”. The three stages do not necessarily follow a “1-2-3 and it’s over” format; during a disaster situation a person is likely to go through various stages, doubling back and looping round as new challenges are faced. I will go into more detail about these stages in other blog posts, but here I will give a general overview of the main points.


1. Denial

This is the stage where the brain freezes, unable to come to terms with what it is experiencing; it is in shock. Ripley looks at the cases of the World Trade Centre and Katrina striking New Orleans. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, many people delayed evacuating, staying at their desk and calling relatives to find out what had happened. During Hurricane Katrina, many people did not evacuate (for a variety of reasons); this was often because they did not think it would be as devastating as it turned out to be. The brain tries to deny what is happening by either thinking “this can’t be happening to me” if the experience is new, or “this can’t be happening again” if they have had a similar experience. How long we delay depends largely on our perception of risk.

2. Deliberation

The deliberation phase generally comes after our brains have gotten over the initial shock, realising something bad is happening. However, at this stage, we do not know what to do about it and are unable to make a decision. Our cognitive thinking and reasoning are compromised at this stage by fear, meaning decisions are harder to make. Fear can be a huge stimulant in responding to disasters, giving a dump of adrenaline to be able to “flee” the source of danger. However, it also can have side effects which can hamper decisions, such as narrowing of vision/loss of hearing, or can even cause you to “freeze”.

3. The Decisive Moment

The third stage comes after the delay and deliberation – we accept we are in danger, a decision has been made and now we take action based on that decision. The exception to the rule is “panic”, which is relatively rare in disaster situations according to Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built In Hell”, despite what many Hollywood movies tend to portray. Ripley explores how panics start and what it feels like to be caught in one. She investigates examples of heroism as a response to disasters, and examines why some people perform heroic acts (the exception rather than the rule).


Finally, Ripley brings all the research and case studies together to explore what we can learn from these disasters and survivors’ experiences. They key point I took from this was preparation, especially planning contingencies, and practising increased the chances of survival. By practising escape procedures and evacuation protocols – by physically going through the motion when it is still safe – your survival rates increase. This gets rid of the deliberation phase of the survival arc – you do not need to make complex cost-benefit analysis decisions during the moment when your body and mind are being paralysed by fear. You have trained your body to respond (evacuate through designated route) to a stimulus (simulated disaster) previously, and so in response to a real stimulus (disaster), your body already pre-programmed to respond in kind.

The book was well-written and engaging. Whilst not dealing solely with natural hazard-related phenomena, the lessons learned from human responses to mortal peril are transferable. I would recommend this book not only to those in the disaster research/academic field, but also to those with a general interest in disasters/human behaviour. It was easy to read and interesting. Despite the topic (disasters are not exactly cheery), I did find myself enjoying it.

Lessons from Understanding Risk Forum 2014

Last week I volunteered for the World Bank’s Understanding Risk Forum 2014 at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London. The Understanding Risk community is made up of academics, insurers, charities, and government representatives in the disaster risk assessment field. On a bi-annual basis, they meet to share knowledge and experience, collaborate, and discuss innovation and best practice in risk assessment. This was the first time I have attended the forum, and I met some fantastic people who were very encouraging in my own endeavours. I managed to get to about half the presentation sessions fitted in around my volunteering schedule.


I would like to share with you all the main points that came across to me from the experience.


1. Communicate Early

A main message that came across from the forum was, unsurprisingly, the importance of communication in risk assessments. But this was not just about effective communication about the end product to the users at the end of the risk assessment, as an afterthought. There are so many risk assessments that have been carried out that just sit on dusty shelves and are never used (roughly 40%).


The key here is to engage with the end-users right at the start of the risk assessment, to get their needs prioritised, so that the end product will actually be of use to them. There really is no point producing a risk assessment (no matter how accurate or advanced) if noone is going to use it. It just becomes an academic exercise. By engaging with the end-user early-on, the risk assessments can be tailored to their needs.

2. Engage and Empower

Another point that came across was how much more effective risk assessments were (in that they were used and something was actually done about the results of the risk assessment outcomes) came from engaging long-term throughout the risk assessment with the communities at risk from the hazards. By involving the communities or local government in the process of creating a risk assessment for their region, they become more engaged in the problems and opportunities it presents. It becomes their product, their problem, rather than something an outsider tells them is their problem. People are much more pro-active at doing something when they are engaged with the process. They become empowered, rather than excluded. It’s the difference between listening to a lecture, and having a discussion. An example of this is Geoscience Australia’s work in the Philippines conducting risk assessments.

3. Financial Incentives

It is a sad thing to admit, but the world revolves around money; companies and government are more likely to make changes based on financial reasoning rather than saving lives. Until we can change that paradigm, the only way to effect change in the way we deal with hazards is to frame it in terms of money. Several suggestions came up throughout the forum in relation to this idea of financial incentives, particularly in terms of encouraging and rewarding companies to insure.

climate change

I must admit up until then, I had always thought the insurance sector to be too focused on money and not useful in terms of saving lives or helping people much (fairly naive, I know). The discussions at the forum changed my mind. If a company has adequate insurance to allow it to recover from a disaster, then it provides a source of income for all those employed by it in the aftermath of a disaster. That means Joe Bloggs can keep going to work and pay for food and bills to keep his family safe. Without adequate insurance, Joe Bloggs (and all his colleagues) are out of work and the knock-on effect can ruin communities. The example given of this during the forum was Hurricane Sandy (2012), where many small businesses  in New York did not have adequate insurance, so have not re-open and probably never will.

If companies and government will only act based on financial reward or incentives, then let’s change our way of communicating with them. If the end goal is to be able to help people and reduce disaster risk, and this is a means of affecting change, then let’s change our dialogue. It might seem a bit morally-dubious, but it’s an effective means to an end.


Overall, the Understanding Risk Forum was a great experience to be immersed in for a few days. The presentations and discussions were interesting and often provocative. The speakers had huge amounts of experience to draw upon and talk about. Everyone was very approachable, and it was great to be part of a community aiming to reduce disaster risk, after feeling a bit isolated in the PhD world. I am looking forward to keeping in touch with the contacts I made, and hopefully attending the next forum in 2016.