Disaster behavior (or what is sometimes called “mass panic”) is again coming to the forefront of discussion amongst emergency planners. Originally a topic of research during the Cold War, emergency management researchers and academicians are speaking more of the resilience of people. Movies and news media have in the past created this expectation of citizens panicking and fleeing in the streets in the event of a catastrophe. Research though shows quite the contrary in that people will react and behave in an orderly fashion during a catastrophe. Events ranging from 9/11 to Katrina show that people, for the most part, tend to behave in accordance with laws and civility in the face immense threat. People have an overwhelming desire to return to normality, referred to earlier as “resiliency”, and the desires normally trumps desires of looting and lawlessness. What about though Katrina victims shown on the news reports pushing shopping carts full of loot through downtown New Orleans? Resiliency is tied to information, if citizens know what to do or what to expect they will act appropriately, however when information is withheld then people lose faith in officials and begin to take the situation into their own hands.
There are numerous examples of where officials, fearing a mass panic, withheld telling the public the truth. Most famously was the decision by senior officials at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generation Station to call the partial core meltdown as an “aberration”. The true nature of the accident was not made public until five days later. The delay and subsequent loss of faith by the public is still felt almost 30 years later. There are still examples today of public officials not getting out in front of a story with the results being widespread distrust in the best cases to widespread rioting in the worst cases.
Of course equally problematic is the tendency of “learned irrelevance”. Think of multiple false fire alarms in the building or tornado sirens sounding when there are no storms in the area. The public has to be educated as to what steps to take and to never ignore warnings. We stress at our programs at Cincinnati State to get citizens to exhibit the appropriate behavior FIRST (such as evacuate or take cover) THEN seek further information.