If it seems like disasters are getting more common, it is because they are. Over the past 50 years, human beings have moved into more places that were never meant to be inhabited by our species. We have built large, vertical cities near water, stripping the earth of natural protection and leaving us more vulnerable to all kinds of trouble.
At the same time, we have learned to forecast storms days before they arrive, and we can (with enough money) build sophisticated tsunami warning systems in our seas. But as we have built ever more impressive gadgets, we have done less and less to build better survivors.
Not Just Luck
That is a mistake. Having covered the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks from New York City, Hurricane Katrina from New Orleans, and many disasters in between, I can tell you that regular people matter more than anyone else at the scene of a catastrophe.
Their behaviour makes a massive difference. Luck is not as all-important as we expect. And in major disasters like the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia, regular people do the vast majority of lifesaving.
After the 7 July 2005 terrorist attacks on London buses and subway trains, the official report on the response would find one "overarching, fundamental lesson" - emergency plans had been designed to meet the needs of emergency officials, not regular people.
On that day, the passengers had no way to let the train drivers know that there had been an explosion.
They also had trouble getting out - the train doors were not designed to be opened by passengers. Finally, passengers couldn't find first aid kits to treat the wounded. It turned out that supplies were kept in subway supervisors offices, not on the trains.
When emergency plans are written, regular people need to be at the table. When drills are held, regular people need to make up the majority of the participants.
And most of all, we need to understand what exactly happens to us in the worst of times. What happens to our brains under extreme fear? Why do we lose some powers and gain others? And how can we learn to do better?
Period of disbelief
Our disaster personalities are not, in fact, anything like our normal personalities. Strong men can wilt, and neurotic women can suddenly become bold and purposeful. Everything changes.
We know that in all kinds of disaster, from ship wrecks to burning buildings, the brain tends to go through three phases: denial, deliberation and the decisive moment.
The first phase may be the most important one to know about in advance. Survivors of fires, terrorist attacks and shipwrecks have all told me how incredibly powerful this period of disbelief can be.
On the deck of the Estonia ferry, which sunk in the Baltic Sea in 1994, one man smoked a cigarette. Others sat in groups, doing nothing, as the water surged onto the ship.
The most common response in most disasters is not panic, but rather the opposite.
Our first instinct is to normalize the situation - to come up with wildly creative and reassuring explanations for why smoke might be creeping across the ceiling or why oxygen masks might have dropped from the airplane ceiling.
In the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, about 1,000 people took the time to shut down their computers before evacuating.
On average, people waited six minutes before beginning to leave. Once they entered the stairwell, they descended at the rate of about one minute per floor - twice as long as engineers would have predicted.
There are reasonable explanations for why we respond to threats this way, most of them rooted in our evolution.
And we can dramatically improve our response and train our brains to do better. But understanding how we actually behave is the first step.
Once we know we tend to move in slow motion, we can learn to push through that phase and get out faster. Buildings and planes can be designed to help us understand what is really happening more quickly - and get to an exit.
It is time to move past the hackneyed disaster narrative - where we simply gape at the loss and then blame government or God alone for our suffering.
It is time to accept that regular people matter, and work intelligently to make ourselves more resilient.
6 months ago