Expert answer:Module 2 The Unthinkable Disaster Mental Health In


Solved by verified expert:You should have easily finished The Unthinkable by now. In this book, journalist Amanda Ripley explores how we react in a disaster and why. She also discusses how we can better prepare ourselves for survival when faced with the unexpected. 1.Reflect on this book and how it impacted you. What was surprising? What was confirming?2.Did anything you read influence you in the present or in terms of what you will do (or not do) in the future?3.What did you learn about how people react in a disaster event? Did anything surprise or fascinate you?4.If you could share one thing with a loved one or peer, what would it be?5.Feel free to share anything further that was impactful for you –

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Title Page
Introduction: “Life Becomes Like Molten Metal”
1 Delay: Procrastinating in Tower 1
2 Risk: Gambling in New Orleans
3 Fear: The Body and Mind of a Hostage
4 Resilience: Staying Cool in Jerusalem
5 Groupthink: Role Playing at the Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire
Photo Insert
6 Panic: A Stampede on Holy Ground
7 Paralysis: Playing Dead in French Class
8 Heroism: A Suicide Attempt on the Potomac River
Conclusion: Making New Instincts
Author’s Note
Selected Bibliography
More Praise for The Unthinkable
To John
“Life Becomes Like Molten Metal”
ON THE MORNING of December 6, 1917, a bright, windless day, a French freighter called the Mont
Blanc began to slowly pull out of the Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia. At the time, Halifax was one of
the busiest ports in the British Empire. There was a war on in Europe, and the harbor groaned with
the churn of ships, men, and weapons. The Mont Blanc was headed for France that day, carrying over
twenty-five hundred tons of explosives, including TNT. While passing through a narrow channel in
the harbor, a larger ship, the Imo from Belgium, accidentally rammed the bow of the Mont Blanc.
The collision itself was not catastrophic. The Imo sailed on, in fact. But the crew of the Mont
Blanc knew that their ship was a floating time bomb. They tried to put out the fire, but not for very
long. Then they scrambled into lifeboats and paddled for shore. For a few heartbreaking moments, the
Mont Blanc drifted in the harbor. It brushed up against the pier, setting it on fire. Children gathered to
watch the spectacle.
Many of the worst disasters in history started quite modestly. One accident led to another, until a
fault line opened up in a civilization. About twenty minutes after the collision, the Mont Blanc
exploded, sending black rain, iron, fire, and wind whipsawing through the city. It was the largest
bomb explosion on record. The blast shattered windows sixty miles away. Glass blinded some one
thousand people. Next, a tidal wave caused by the explosion swamped the shore. Then fire began to
creep across the city. In the harbor, a black column of fire and smoke turned into a hovering white
mushroom cloud. Survivors fell to their knees, convinced that they had seen a German zeppelin in the
At the moment of the explosion, an Anglican priest and scholar named Samuel Henry Prince
happened to be eating breakfast at a restaurant near the port. He ran to help, opening up his church as
a triage station. It was, strangely enough, Prince’s second disaster in five years. He had responded to
another local cataclysm in 1912, when a luxury cruise liner called the Titanic had sunk some five
hundred miles off the coast of Halifax. Back then, Prince had performed burials at sea in the frigid
Prince was the kind of man who marveled at things others preferred not to think about. On the
awful day of the explosion, he was astounded by what he saw. Prince watched men and women
endure crude sidewalk operations without obvious pain. How was one young soldier able to work the
entire day with one of his eyes knocked out? Some people experienced hallucinations. Why did
parents fail to recognize their own children at the hospital—and, especially, at the morgue? Small
details nagged at Prince. On the morning of the explosion, why was the very first relief station set up
by a troupe of actors, of all people?
That night, a blizzard hit Halifax, the epic’s final act. By the time the catastrophe had rippled out
across the land, 1,963 people would be dead. In silent film footage taken after the blast, Halifax looks
like it was hit by a nuclear weapon. Houses, train terminals, and churches lie like pick-up sticks on
the snow-covered ground. Sleighs are piled high with corpses. “Here were to be found in one dread
assembling the combined horrors of war, earthquake, fire, flood, famine and storm—a combination
for the first time in the records of human disaster,” Prince would write. Later, scientists developing
the atomic bomb would study the Halifax explosion to see how such a blast travels across land and
After helping rebuild Halifax, Prince moved to New York City to study sociology. For his PhD
dissertation at Columbia University, he deconstructed the Halifax explosion. “Catastrophe and Social
Change,” published in 1920, was the first systematic analysis of human behavior in a disaster. “Life
becomes like molten metal,” he wrote. “Old customs crumble, and instability rules.”
What makes Prince’s work so engaging is his optimism. Despite his funereal obsessions, he saw
disasters as opportunities—not just, as he put it, “a series of vicissitudes mercifully ending one day in
final cataclysm.” He was a minister, but he was clearly enchanted by industry. The horrific explosion
had, in the end, “blown Halifax into the 20th century,” forcing many changes that were for the better.
His thesis opened with a quote from St. Augustine: “This awful catastrophe is not the end but the
beginning. History does not end so. It is the way its chapters open.”
After Prince’s death, the field of human behavior in disasters would languish. Then with the onset
of the cold war and a new host of anxieties about how the masses might respond to nuclear attacks, it
would come back to life. After the fall of communism, it would stagnate again—until the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001. Prince seemed to anticipate the temptation for people to avert their
eyes. “This little volume on Halifax is offered as a beginning,” he wrote. Don’t let it be the end, he
pleaded. “Knowledge will grow scientific only after the most faithful examination of many
catastrophes.” The remainder of the century would prove rich with material.
Most of us have imagined what it might be like to experience a plane crash or a fire or an earthquake.
We have ideas about what we might do or fail to do, how it might feel for our hearts to pound in our
chests, whom we might call in the final moments, and whether we might be suddenly compelled to
seize the hand of the businessman sitting in the window seat. We have fears that we admit to openly
and ones that we never discuss. We carry around this half-completed sentence, filling in different
scenarios depending on the anxiety of the times: I wonder what I would do if…
Think for a moment about the narratives we know by heart. When I say the word disaster, many of
us think of panic, hysterical crowds, and a kind of every-man-for-himself brutality; an orgy of
destruction interrupted only by the civilizing influence of professional rescuers. Yet all evidence from
Prince until today belies this script. Reality is a lot more interesting—and hopeful.
What Prince discovered in Halifax was that our disaster personalities can be quite different from
the ones we expect to meet. But that doesn’t mean they are unknowable. It just means we haven’t been
looking in the right places.
The Things Survivors Wish You Knew
This book came about unexpectedly. In 2004, as a reporter working on Time magazine’s coverage of
the third anniversary of 9/11, I decided to check in with some of the people who had survived the
attacks. I wondered how they were doing. Unlike many of the families of the victims, the survivors
had kept to themselves, for the most part. They felt so lucky—or guilty or scarred—that they hadn’t
wanted to make too much noise. But there were tens of thousands of these survivors out there, people
who had gone to work in a skyscraper one morning and then spent hours fighting to get out of it. I was
curious to hear what had happened to their lives.
I got in touch with the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, one of the first and largest support
groups, and they invited me to sit in on one of their regular meetings. They met in a fluorescent-lit
office space, high above the racket of Times Square. As I rode up in the elevator one evening, I
prepared myself for an exchange of grief. After 9/11, I had heard so many stories. Every widow,
firefighter, and victim had a unique tragedy to tell, and I can still recite those interviews almost word
for word. The city’s pain seemed to have no bottom.
But this meeting was not what I had expected. These people had an agenda. They had things they
wanted to tell other people before the next terrorist attack, and there was urgency in the room. The
survivors were from all different neighborhoods, professions, and ethnicities, but they said very
similar, surprising things. They had learned so much that morning, and they wondered why no one had
prepared them. One man even proposed starting a lecture circuit to educate people about how it feels
to escape a skyscraper. “We were the first responders,” one woman said. A sign-up sheet was passed
around to start planning speaking engagements at churches and offices.
Watching them, I realized these people had glimpsed a part of the human condition that most of us
never see. We worry about horrible things happening to us, but we don’t know much about what it
actually feels like. I wondered what they had learned.
I started to research the stories of survivors from other disasters. The overlaps were startling.
People in shipwrecks, plane crashes, and floodwaters all seemed to undergo a mysterious
metamorphosis. They performed better than they ever would have expected in some ways and much
worse in others. I wanted to know why. What was happening to our brains to make us do so many
unexpected things? Were we culturally conditioned to risk our lives for strangers in shipwrecks?
Were we evolutionarily programmed to freeze in emergencies? My search for answers led me across
the world, to England for its long history of studying fire behavior, to Israel for its trauma
psychologists and counterterrorism experience, and back to the States to participate in simulated
plane crashes and fires, as well as military research into the brain.
Writing a book about disasters may sound voyeuristic or dark, and there are times when it was. But
the truth is, I was mesmerized by this subject because it gave me hope. You spend enough time
covering tragedies and you start to look for a foothold. I knew there was no way to prevent all
catastrophes from happening. I knew it made sense to prepare for them and work to minimize the
losses. We should install smoke detectors, buy insurance, and pack “go bags.” But none of those
things ever felt very satisfying.
Listening to survivors, I realized we’d been holding dress rehearsals for a play without knowing
any of our lines. Our government had warned us to be prepared, but it hadn’t told us why. In New
Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, I learned more from regular people on street corners than I learned
covering any homeland security conference. In firehouses and brain research labs, I learned that if we
get to know our disaster personalities before the disaster, we might have a slightly better chance of
surviving. At the very least, we’ll expunge some of the unknowns from our imaginations, and we’ll
uncover secrets about ourselves.
I never expected to use what I had learned anytime soon. I usually show up at disaster sites after
they happen, in time for the regrets and recriminations, but not the shaking or the burning. But I was
wrong, in a way. From a physiological perspective, everyday life is full of tiny disaster drills.
Ironically, after writing a book about disasters, I feel less anxious overall, not more. I am a much
better judge of risk now that I understand my own warped equation for dread. Having studied dozens
of plane crashes, I’m more relaxed when I’m flying. And no matter how many Code-Orange-beafraid-be-very-afraid alerts I see on the evening news, I feel some amount of peace having already
glimpsed the worst-case scenario. The truth, it turns out, is usually better than the nightmare.
The Problem with Rescue Dogs
Conversations about disasters have always been colored by fear and superstition. The word disaster,
from the Latin dis (away) and astrum (stars), can be translated as “ill-starred.” After Hurricane
Katrina in 2005, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said that God was clearly “mad at America” for
invading Iraq—and at black people for “not taking care of ourselves.” Inchoate as these plot lines
may be, Nagin’s impulse—to inject meaning into chaos—was understandable. Narrative is the
beginning of recovery.
But narrative can miss important subplots. In books and official reports, the tragedy of Katrina was
blamed on politicians, poverty, and poor engineering, as it should have been. But there was another
conversation that should have happened—not about blame, but about understanding. What did regular
people do before, during, and after the storm? Why? And what could they have done better?
These days, we tend to think of disasters as acts of God and government. Regular people only
feature into the equation as victims, which is a shame. Because regular people are the most important
people at a disaster scene, every time.
In 1992, a series of sewer explosions caused by a gas leak ripped through Guadalajara, Mexico’s
second-largest city. The violence came from below, rupturing neighborhoods block by block. Starting
at 10:30 A.M., at least nine separate explosions ripped open a jagged trench more than a mile long.
About three hundred people died. Some five thousand houses were razed. The Mexican Army was
called in. Rescuers from California raced to help. Search-and-rescue dogs were ordered up.
But first, before anyone else, regular people were on the scene saving one another. They did
incredible things, these regular people. They lifted rubble off survivors with car jacks. They used
garden hoses to force air into voids where people were trapped. In fact, as in most disasters, the vast
majority of rescues were done by ordinary folks. After the first two hours, very few people came out
of the debris alive. The search-and-rescue dogs did not arrive until twenty-six hours after the
It’s only once disaster strikes that ordinary citizens realize how important they are. For example,
did you know that most serious plane accidents are survivable? On this point, the statistics are quite
clear. Of all passengers involved in serious accidents between 1983 and 2000, 56 percent survived.
(“Serious” is defined by the National Transportation Safety Board as accidents involving fire, severe
injury, and substantial aircraft damage.) Moreover, survival often depends on the behavior of the
passenger. These facts have been well known in the aviation industry for a long time. But unless
people have been in a plane crash, most individuals have no idea.
Since 9/11 the U.S. government has sent over $23 billion to states and cities in the name of
homeland security. Almost none of that money has gone toward intelligently enrolling regular people
like you and me in the cause. Why don’t we tell people what to do when the nation is on Orange Alert
against a terrorist attack—instead of just telling them to be afraid? Why does every firefighter in
Casper, Wyoming (pop. 50,632), have an eighteen-hundred-dollar HAZMAT suit—but we don’t each
have a statistically derived ranking of the hazards we actually face, and a smart, creative plan for
dealing with them?
All across the nation we have snapped plates of armor onto our professional lifesavers. In return,
we have very high expectations for these brave men and women. Only after everything goes wrong do
we realize we’re on our own. And the bigger the disaster, the longer we will be on our own. No fire
department can be everywhere at once, no matter how good their gear.
The July 7, 2005, terrorist attacks on London buses and subway trains killed fifty-two people. The
city’s extensive surveillance camera system was widely praised for its help during the ensuing
investigation. Less well known is how unhelpful the technology was to regular people on the 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.
Luck Is Unreliable
Here’s the central conundrum addressed by this book: we flirt shamelessly with risk today,
constructing city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines. Largely because
of where we live, disasters have become more frequent and more expensive. But as we build ever
more impressive buildings and airplanes, we do less and less to build better survivors.
How did we get this way? The more I learned, the more I wondered how much of our survival
behaviors—and misbehaviors—could be explained by evolution. After all, we evolved to escape
predators, not buildings that reach a quarter mile into the sky. Has technology simply outpaced our
survival mechanisms?
But there are two kinds of evolution: the genetic kind and the cultural kind. Both shape our
behavior, and the cultural kind has gotten a lot faster. We now have many ways to create “instincts”:
we can learn to do better or worse. We can pass on traditions about how to deal with modern risks,
just as we pass on language.
So then the question became, why weren’t we doing a better job instilling survival skills through
our culture? Globalization is one of those words that gets hijacked so often it loses its meaning.
That’s partly because the word encompasses so much, including opposing ideas. In the past two
centuries, we have become far less connected to our families and communities. At the same time, we
have become more dependent upon one another and technology. We are isolated in our codependence,
More than 80 percent of Americans now live in or near cities and rely upon a sprawling network of
public and private entities to get food, water, electricity, transportation, and medicine. We make
almost nothing for ourselves. So a disaster that strikes one group of people is more likely than ever to
affect others. But just as we have become more interdependent, we have become more detached—
from our neighborhoods and traditions. This is a break from our evolutionary history. Humans and our
evolutionary ancestors spent most of the past several million years living in small groups of relatives.
We evolved through passing on our genes—and our wisdom—from generation to generation. But
today, the kinds of social ties that used to protect us from threats get neglected. In their place, we have
substituted new technology, which only works some of the time.
In May of 1960, the largest earthquake ever measured occurred off the coast of Chile, killing a
thousand people. Luckily, Hawaii’s automated alert system kicked in, and tsunami sirens went off ten
hours before the island was hit. The technology worked exactly as planned. But it turned out that most
of the people who heard the siren did not evacuate. They weren’t sure what the noise meant. Some
thought it signaled that they should be alert for more information. The technology was there but the
traditions weren’t. A total of sixty-one people died in Hawaii that day.
It’s hard to trace a single cause for why we do what we do under extreme duress. The chapters that
follow allow us to test several hypotheses against real disasters. I’ve tried to resist the urge to
concoct one grand narrative. But even in that complexity, simple truths emerge. The mo …
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