The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by David Glennn on Sociology and Hurricane Katrina Disaster Sociologists Study What Went Wrong in the Response to the Hurricanes, but Will Policy Makers Listen?
The article discusses what disaster sociology has to say about the disaster in New Orleans. The article makes a number of good points about panic, command and control, and managing uncertainty.
The article starts up with a discussion of the panic myth:
One of the central tenets of disaster sociology is that most communities can, to a large degree, spontaneously heal themselves. People affected by disaster obviously often need resources from the outside world — food, water, shelter. But that does not mean that disaster victims also need outside direction and coordination, most scholars in the field say.
A prime example of spontaneous cooperation was the extraordinarily successful evacuation of Lower Manhattan during the September 11 attacks. James M. Kendra, an assistant professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas, estimates that nearly half a million people fled Manhattan on boats — and he emphasizes that the waterborne evacuation was a self-organized volunteer process that could probably never have been planned on a government official’s clipboard.
“Various kinds of private companies, dinner-cruise boats, people with their own personal watercraft, the Coast Guard, the harbor pilots — in very short order, they managed to organize this evacuation,” Mr. Kendra said.
The evacuation in New Orleans, of course, was not so smooth. Disaster sociologists say that they are eager to determine how much chaos and looting actually occurred there, and how much was conjured through rumor and news-media exaggeration.
“The panic myth is a consistent one,” said Russell R. Dynes, a professor emeritus of sociology at Delaware, who was among the founders, in 1963, of the Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University. (The center moved to Delaware in 1985.) “The idea of social breakdown — I’m even pretty damn skeptical of that,” he said. “One of the problems here is TV. If you take a film clip and you run it for five hours, you create a notion that something’s happening.”
In 40 years of disaster research, Mr. Dynes said, he and his colleagues have found very few instances of true social breakdown.
The false idea of postdisaster panic grows partly from simple semantic confusion, said Michael K. Lindell, a psychologist who directs the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University at College Station. “A reporter will stick a microphone in someone’s face and ask, ‘Well, what did you do when the explosion went off?’ And the person will answer, ‘I panicked.’ And then they’ll proceed to describe a very logical, rational action in which they protected themselves and looked out for people around them. What they mean by ‘panic’ is just ‘I got very frightened.’ But when you say ‘I panicked,’ it reinforces this idea that there’s a thin veneer of civilization, which vanishes after a disaster, and that you need outside authorities and the military to restore order. But really, people usually do very well for themselves, thank you.”
At least one scholar, however, tentatively believes that there actually was serious social breakdown in some parts of New Orleans. “One possible explanation,” said John H. Sorensen, a sociologist who serves as a senior researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “is that this is perhaps the first American disaster since the 1906 [San Francisco] earthquake where a whole urban area has been severely damaged.” The sheer scale of the destruction of physical infrastructure, he suggests, might have made it impossible for the usual sorts of spontaneous cooperative behavior to emerge.
“It gives one pause,” Mr. Sorensen said. “The sum of social-science knowledge about disasters is really based on a number of smaller events. Whether or not that extant knowledge is really applicable to large-scale regional disasters is certainly something that I’ve been thinking about during the last few weeks.”
A related question is whether some police officers and rescue workers in Louisiana abandoned their posts, as local officials and some news accounts have suggested. Gary A. Kreps, a professor emeritus of sociology at the College of William and Mary, wonders whether that might have occurred because some workers were concerned with protecting their own families. “I’m skeptical that, over all, role abandonment was a major problem,” Mr. Kreps said, “but let’s see what we learn from more systematic research.”
Harper’s magazine Oct issue also has an essay The Uses on Disaster on how authorities promote the idea of panic to demonstrate why they are needed. It now appears that initial reports of mayhem in New Orleans seem to have been exaggerated. See for example the BBC article New Orleans violence ‘overstated.’ And New Orleans, like most disasters, was full of examples of self-organization that would gladden an anarchist’s heart.
The Chronicle of Higher Education article goes on to discuss FEMA and Homeland Security. Many disaster scientists feel that it was a mistake to include FEMA in Homeland Security, in particular because this move further promoted an inflexible, inappropriate ‘command and control’ approach to disaster management.
“The structure of the Department of Homeland Security is not conducive to good emergency management,” said William L. Waugh Jr., a professor of public policy at Georgia State University. “It isn’t even conducive to homeland security.” Within the department, Mr. Waugh said, FEMA and other small agencies have not successfully competed for money and attention because they do not mix well with what he calls the “gun-toting” culture of the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies that dominate the department. “They have a propensity to have small groups of loyalists in a room making decisions, closed off from everyone else. No experts on what they’re actually making decisions about.”
Beyond that insular culture, some critics say, the department is also hamstrung by a “command and control” mentality that is ill suited to the realities of disasters.
“One of the things that’s very consistently found,” said Delaware’s Mr. Dynes, “is that in a disaster, decisions are made at lower levels than they are made normally because you’re confronted with a situation, and you can’t get 10 of your colleagues to have a staff meeting to decide what to do. You’ve got to make a decision. So any decision in any organization is going to be made at lower levels than in normal times. And so the idea that anyone at the top could command and control all this activity is idiotic.”
Mr. Lindell, of Texas A&M, agreed, saying he feared that policy makers in Washington had taken the wrong lessons from Katrina. The employees of the Department of Homeland Security, he said, “are mostly drawn from the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and from police departments. They’re firmly committed to a command-and-control model.” (Just a few days ago, President Bush may have pushed the process one step further: He suggested that the Department of Defense take control of relief efforts after major natural disasters.)
The habits of mind cultivated by military and law-enforcement personnel have their virtues, Mr. Lindell said, but they don’t always fit disaster situations. “They come from organizations where they’re dealing with an intelligent adversary. So they want to keep information secret — it’s only shared on a need-to-know basis. But emergency managers and medical personnel want information shared as widely as possible because they have to rely on persuasion to get people to cooperate. The problem with putting FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security is that it’s like an organ transplant. What we’ve seen over the past four years is basically organ rejection.”
The article concludes by quoting Michael K. Lindell, a hazard psychologist at Texas A&M University at College Station who says:
“All of the money is going into homeland security,” Mr. Lindell said. “The solution to the problem in the levees in New Orleans would have been to take all the chemical-protection suits that have been purchased for little tiny towns that are too small to be targets and too far away to assist, and fill those chemical-protection suits with sand, and use those to fill the levees. It would have been a better use.”
Thanks to Gary Kofinas for suggesting I take a look at the Chronicle article.