When a plane crashes or the earth shakes, we tend to view the survivors as the lucky ones. Had they been in the next seat or the apartment across the street, they would have perished. We marvel at the whimsy of the devastation.
The recent earthquake in China and the cyclone in Burma, not to mention the battery of tornadoes and wildfires ripping through the U.S. this season, remind us that disasters are part of the human condition. We are more or less vulnerable to them, depending where we live.
But survival is not just a product of luck. We can do far more than we think to improve our odds of preventing and surviving even the most horrendous of catastrophes. It's a matter of preparation bolting down your water heater before an earthquake or actually reading the in-flight safety card before takeoff but also of mental conditioning. Each of us has what I call a "disaster personality," a state of being that takes over in a crisis. It is at the core of who we are. The fact is, we can refine that personality and teach our brains to work more quickly, maybe even more wisely.
Humans are programmed with basic survival skills. When frightened, we get a shot of performance-enhancing hormones, and the blood pumps to our limbs to help us outrun whatever enemy we face. But in modern times, we're hardly aware of such natural skills, and most of us do little to understand or develop them.
We could, for example, become far better at judging threats before catastrophe strikes. We have technological advantages that our ancestors lacked, and we know where disasters are likely to occur. And yet we flirt shamelessly with risk. We construct city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines as if nature will be cowed by our audacity and leave us be. And we rely on a sprawling network of faraway suppliers for necessities like warmth and food. If the power cuts off, many of us still don't know where the stairs are in our skyscrapers, and we would have trouble surviving for a week without Wal-Mart. Hurricane season starts June 1, and forecasters predict a worse-than-average summer. But for many of us, preparation means little more than crossing our fingers and hoping to live.
Yet the knowledge is out there. Risk experts understand how we could overcome our blind spots and more intelligently hedge our bets. In laboratories and on shooting ranges, there are people who study what happens to bodies and minds under extreme duress. Military researchers conduct elaborate experiments to try to predict who will melt down in a crisis and who will thrive. Police, soldiers, race-car drivers and helicopter pilots train to anticipate the strange behaviors they will encounter at the worst of times. Regular people can learn from that knowledge, since, after all, we will be the first on the scene of any disaster.
Of course, no one can promise a plan of escape. But that doesn't mean we should live in willful ignorance. As Hunter S. Thompson said, "Call on God, but row away from the rocks."
Over the years, I have interviewed survivors of unimaginable tragedies. Most say that during their ordeals, almost nothing felt, sounded or looked the way they would have expected. Reality was in some ways better, in other ways worse. They say there are things they wish they had known, things they want you to know. Here, then, are three of their stories, accompanied by some of the hard wisdom of loss and luck:
Panic Can Be Your Friend
When disaster strikes, a troubling human response can inflate the death toll: people freeze up. They shut down, becoming suddenly limp and still. That's what happened to some people on Sept. 28, 1994, when the M.V. Estonia went down in the Baltic Sea, the worst sea disaster in modern European history.
The huge automobile ferry had left its home port in Tallinn, Estonia, on a routine 15-hour trip to Stockholm. Although the weather had been stormy all night, the crew did not expect serious problems. A band was playing in the Baltic Bar, and the 10-deck vessel churned through the inky waters as it had for 14 years.
Kent Härstedt, now a member of Sweden's Parliament, was then a 29-year-old passenger. That night he was hanging out in one of the ship's bars, with about 50 other passengers. "There was karaoke music," he recalls. "Everybody was laughing and singing." But just after 1 a.m., the Estonia suddenly listed starboard 30°, hurling passengers, vending machines and flowerpots across its passageways. In the bar, almost everyone fell violently against the side of the boat. Härstedt managed to grab on to the iron bar railing and hold on, hanging above everyone else.
"In just one second, everything went from a loud, happy, wonderful moment to total silence. Every brain, I guess, was working like a computer trying to realize what had happened," he says. Then came the screaming and crying. People had been badly hurt in the fall, and the tilt of the ship made it extremely difficult to move.
Härstedt began to strategize, tapping into some of the survival skills he had learned in the military. "I started to react very differently from normal. I started to say, 'O.K., there is option one, option two. Decide. Act.' I didn't say, 'Oh, the boat is sinking.' I didn't even think about the wider perspective." Like many survivors, Härstedt experienced the illusion of centrality, a coping mechanism in which the brain fixates on the individual experience. "I just saw my very small world."
But as Härstedt made his way into the corridor, he noticed something strange about some of the other passengers. They weren't doing what he was doing. "Some people didn't seem to realize what had happened. They were just sitting there," he says. Not just one or two people, but entire groups seemed to be immobilized. They were conscious, but they were not reacting.
Contrary to popular expectations, this is what happens in many disasters. Crowds generally become quiet and docile. Panic is rare. The bigger problem is that people do too little, too slowly. They sometimes shut down completely, falling into a stupor.
On the Estonia, Härstedt climbed up the stairwell, fighting against gravity. Out on the deck, the ship's lights were on, and the moon was shining. The full range of human capacities was on display. Incredibly, one man stood to the side, smoking a cigarette, Härstedt remembers. Most people strained to hold on to the rolling ship and, at the same time, to look for life jackets and lifeboats. British passenger Paul Barney remembers groups of people standing still like statues. "I kept saying to myself, 'Why don't they try to get out of here?'" he later told the Observer.