EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — August 25, 2010

The Human Side of Disaster
Implications for the Emergency Management Professional

Thomas E. Drabek, Ph.D.
John Evans Professor and Professor, Emeritus
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of Denver

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following has been prepared from a transcription of the recording. The complete slide set (Adobe PDF) may be downloaded from http://www.emforum.org/vforum/Drabek/HumanSideofDisaster.pdf for ease of printing.

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone. Welcome once again to EMforum.org. I am Amy Sebring and will serve as Moderator today. We are very glad you could join us. Our topic today is a recently published book, The Human Side of Disaster, and its implications for the emergency management professional. I would like to quote from one of the reviews:

a unique and much needed book. It grows out of [the author’s] lifelong commitment to not only conducting basic and applied research but also to passing on vital knowledge…what readers will find is a sound and highly readable discussion of insights and principles on the social and behavioral aspects of disasters...

[Slide 1]

We are very pleased to have the author with us today. Dr. Thomas E. Drabek is John Evans Professor and Professor, Emeritus, Department of Sociology and Criminology, University of Denver, where he was a full time faculty member from 1965 until his retirement in 2004.

In addition to authoring or co-authoring over 100 book chapters and journal articles and 27 books, he prepared four Instructor Guides for EMI: Sociology of Disaster (1996); The Social Dimensions of Disaster (1996); Emergency Management Principles and Application for Tourism, Hospitality, and Travel Management Industries (2000, co-authored with Chuck Y. Gee); and Social Dimensions of Disaster, 2nd ed. (2004).

In August, 2007 he was the third recipient of The E.L. Quarantelli Award for Contributions to Social Science Disaster Theory by the International Research Committee on Disasters and in June, 2008, he received the first Dr. B. Wayne Blanchard Award for Academic Excellence in Emergency Management Higher Education.

Welcome Dr. Drabek, and thank you very much for being with us today. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off please.


Thomas Drabek: Amy, I want to first begin by saying thank you to you, and also I want to thank Avagene Moore for the invitation to participate in this forum.

I appreciate the words of introduction that you just made, but I want to add one other comment in terms of introductory remarks, and that is that I had the very rare privilege of going to many, many communities that have been torn up over a 40 year period of being a full-time researcher. I still anticipate doing some of that kind of thing, but through the media—newspaper and television accounts, and trying to make some additional observations as time will permit in the future.

All those experiences reinforced what I experienced very early on in my career, and that is a great sense of humility and a great sense of respect for first-responders, for emergency managers, and others who get involved in trying to respond. As an academic, I had the easy part—to come in at an appropriate time, conduct interviews, go home and think and reflect.

While that is an important job, one that I had taken very seriously over a 40 year period, I also recognize that it is with great humility and great respect that I peer out at the ones that are doing the hard work. I might mention that the item I want to talk about today has its origins when I was a graduate student, in fact the first graduate student at the Disaster Research Center in Ohio State at that time, working with Quarantelli and Dynes in 1963.

That’s when I was introduced to disaster both by reading as well as by doing my initial field work. That work continued after I joined the faculty at the University of Denver. In 1974, I was asked by Wayne Blanchard at the Higher Education Program at EMI to develop a course called "Social Dimensions of Disaster." That course was one that grew out of a long period of experiences.

I just realized that I misspoke. The course with Blanchard, we started working on that in 1994. I guess that is a sign of age when you start skipping decades. My own course at the University of Denver was in 1974, and that course was called "Community Response to Natural Disaster". Both working on my original course in 1974, and my follow-up work with Blanchard which was culminated in 2004 with a second edition of "Social Dimensions of Disaster", I found there was a real need for some kind of text materials for undergraduates and the general public.

That became that impetus for the development after I retired, working with my wife on the book called, "The Human Side of Disaster."

[Slide 2]

If we can go to slide 2, you’ll see a copy of the cover of that book. I want to give credit to my wife who designed that cover. We worked very hard on that book and tried to accomplish a variety of objectives.

[Slide 3]

The core topics in that book begin with the experiences of some fictional characters I invented to try to make several points that I pick up on in the book. The first part of the book is a series of scenarios where you meet certain individuals, like the honeymooning couple in Kawaihai at the time of Hurricane Neki, and each little episode is couched in an actual disaster, but the characters and experiences are of my imagination.

I invented those to try and make certain points, which I pick up on in the book. Later, we turn to a statement of what I call the problem and the approach—the problem being various kinds of disasters and how we’re going to deal with them, and the approach being the use of a social science method of theory and empirical research.

We then turn to the substantive topics in this book. We begin with warning and evacuation. What I’m trying to do there is summarize in three of four chapters the basic principles that we have documented through 50 years of empirical research. My hope is that students as well as current and practicing emergency managers, and others who become part of the emergency management community could learn evidence-based principles that many research studies have supported.

It is not that we have all the answers, but at least we now have a body of knowledge that needs to get out of the dusty libraries and into the hands of people that are on the firing line, and be able to implement some of those findings.

I then turn to the topic of initial responses and we talk about what survivors typically do. I highlight the very important role that volunteers play. These are both volunteers that are unofficial—people that just happen to be at the scene and try to help—as well as organized volunteers ranging from SAR groups to the Red Cross to many, many, many other diverse groups of people who perform such an important role.

I have a chapter which I have called "Organized Disorganization", and I try to use that theme to develop how I see a fragmented response that occurs to most disasters. The degree of fragmentation, of course, varies and that varies directly with the strength of the emergency management program that has been developed in the local community.

It is organized in the sense that typically, many of the organizations responding are internally fairly well organized. That varies, of course, depending on which organization it is. What is disorganized is the multi-organizational aspect of the response. Sometimes that can be quite well coordinated and integrated. At other times, it is much less so. Typically, it is unfortunately much less so.

I then describe some of the research findings that have come to us during the recovery period for both long term and short term, both community processes as well as human impacts dealing with the individual psyche. Finally, I get bold and decide to state my view as to what I think must be done. I’ll be coming back to that topic very shortly toward the end of the talk.

[Slide 4]

There are some unique features about this book that I want to highlight. First of all, the conversational tone—the conversational tone of the book is that I wanted it to sound like as you read, that you were hearing me lecture. That is the feature that I think is one of the strong points of the book in that it is very readable.

It reflects a lot of my personal experiences, the kind of experiences that I would share and did share over the years in the classroom. It is evidence-based. As I developed certain anecdotal examples, I then will try to identify a series of principles and reference the empirical literature that the principle is based on so that the reader can be reading along and notice a small footnote number, and if they want to dig out the actual footnotes, all the citations are listed in great detail.

In fact, the footnotes comprise about 1/5 of the total manuscript because I spent a great amount of time on wanting to be sure everything was documented very carefully. Later in the book I develop the concept of a social map and the idea being that we can look at the communication structures of responding organizations, much like we do a roadmap, and we can see where there a links leading from one organization to another.

We can also see, just like on a roadmap, where if you start down one path, it dead ends—it doesn’t go anywhere else. By helping students and practicing emergency managers get a better handle on the complexity of the interaction structures among the numerous organizations that are responding to most events, we can begin to see how that horizontal system at the local level, as well as the vertical dimension of the intergovernmental system sometimes does not mesh as well as we would like.

Most people, when they start doing one of the maps, are at first really struck by the great complexity that our social responses to disasters represents. The book also reflects a great breadth of perspective. It is not just a book written by a sociologist looking at only sociological literature, although that is the primary thrust—but it also has a multidisciplinary orientation so that there are findings from other disciplines as they come to bear on the topic I am discussing.

Finally, at the end of the book I propose a vision—a vision for emergency management and for emergency managers of the future. I want to elaborate that in just a few minutes.

[Slide 5]

One of the themes of the book is that emergency managers would be helped by thinking through the very profound implications that come with conceptualizing disasters as non-routine social problems. In doing that, we highlight the importance of the interdependencies among social problems. An obvious example would be when we talk about a problem like crime—we know that crime is related to types of crime, levels of crime, very much related to issues of poverty, dysfunctional families, and so on down the line.

We also know it is related to the economic structure of a community and a society. As that economic structure experiences various stresses, like we are experiencing now with high levels of unemployment, then we see the interdependency between that and patterns of crimes of various types that we’re going to experience.

We also know that when we look at social problems, we have to be very cognizant of the role the social elite is playing in defining both what is a problem and what range of alternatives we are going to consider.

That’s not to say that the only decision makers or participants in dealing with social problems are the social elite, but it does mean that we have to recognize at the outset that oftentimes, because of the role the social elite are playing in community decision making, there are various decisions that do get made that have repercussions and implications that often are not widely recognized and are sometimes very, very poorly understood.

Indeed, the very definition of what is a social problem is very much related to this analysis then, because many times in a community, what we call a pattern of inertia that often exists in terms of emergency management is related to how it is that the community is thinking of various social problems and the priorities among them. It helps the emergency manager to begin to rethink why it is that the issues that are of concern to the emergency manager are not shared in the priority scale of many in the community.

Also, from a social problems perspective, we re-cast the notion of blame on victims. I saw this most vividly as I watched some of the media coverage 5 years ago, and now that I’m seeing some of the media coverage of how Katrina was responded to 5 years ago, in some of the recent programs that are being shown now.

There were individuals who very quickly lashed out at some of the disaster victims and were displacing the blame for their predicament on the victims themselves. A social problems perspective requires that we try to go beyond that sort of blaming activity and begin to understand why people behave as they do, so that we can then begin to think about strategies that might be used in causing that behavior to take different forms than what it is that we’re upset about.

It does very little good to stand around and talk about how stupid people are and how it is that it’s really their fault that they didn’t listen to the authorities. It’s the job of the authorities to build a warning system that works. One has to recognize that a program that works for some people will not work for all.

Lastly, the implication of the social problems perspective is that in understanding disasters and in understanding how to better cope with them, we need to recognize root causes and not simply be left with treating symptoms. That means we have to peer into the pattern of housing that is what we’re dealing with in terms of a recent flood.

We have to ask questions about—well why was that housing put there in the first place? Or if it’s an earthquake, and we see buildings coming down like they did in Haiti, or other earthquakes recently, we have to ask, why were the buildings built the way they were? We have to go beyond just looking at the symptoms of the disaster and begin looking at some of the root causes.

[Slide 6]

In doing so, we have an opportunity to look at an example. The case example I would pick would be the Haiti earthquake of last January. In thinking about that Haiti earthquake, there were several points that jumped out as me as I began reflecting on it and as I began thinking about it from the standpoint of this social problems perspective—the perspective that I develop in the book, "The Human Side of Disaster".

The Haiti earthquake occurred. It was a real event. But when we start looking at some of the responses, we notice that we have a great abundance of media coverage. As I indicate here on the slide, the media slide is "now". It wasn’t "then". Right away, we need to ask why is it that the vulnerability that this nation represented was so far off our radar so that the earthquake occurred, we found ourselves much like when we were looking at the evacuees standing outside the Convention Center or at the Superdome at the time of Katrina.

"Where did these people come from?" is what some people were saying. Well similarly, people were saying as they looked at the media coverage from Haiti, "How in the world could a nation so close to the United States be in such dire straits? Why is it we never heard about this before?" The reason we didn’t hear about it before is because it was not on the priority of the media.

When we begin looking at that earthquake, we need to ask—what is it that is off the radar now? What are issues that are going to come up in the next decade that media coverage is not telling us about, and how do we go about stimulating the media to go beyond just covering events as they occur?

During the Katrina response and also during the Haiti response many media people were telling us a great deal about looting. We had shots of people carrying out sacks filled with 6 pairs of tennis shoes, or one person carrying out 8 pairs of pants and so on, and right away we began characterizing the survivors as criminals—they were looters. Certainly, there is always a criminal element in any community.

Certainly there were individuals that were taking advantage of both of these disasters for personal gain. But when we begin doing research on who the looters were and why they were looting, we found that the simplistic image—the image that sticks with most people—that simplistic image is one that reflected the criminal rather than the survivor. Clearly, much of the looting that was occurring both in Haiti and in the time of Katrina were individuals who were simply trying to find items that were going to help them or their family members survive.

When we’re looking at this perspective of the social problems orientation, we find ourselves recasting the analysis of certain behaviors. I think looting is one. We also find that sometimes we have actions that have been taken with unintended consequences. When you notice it says "Arkansas Rice"—the point being, when Bill Clinton, who I regard, whatever your view of his politics or any other aspect, as a man who is a very smart individual.

He had the opportunity to direct the distribution of rice from Arkansas to helping people in Haiti before the earthquake occurred. He recently has made numerous statements where he has said, "I had no idea that the unintended consequences of that rice distribution program was going to be to undercut the production of rice." By helping people in this way, we were actually undercutting their resiliency.

We have to ask then, how is it that sometimes we propose actions or we implement programs that undercut the resiliency of the people we are trying to help? All of this leads us to, as it is indicated at the bottom of this slide—we have to adopt a much more strategic perspective in emergency management, and we have to being focusing, as many emergency managers do in their talk, but not necessarily in their conception frameworks, in taking actions that are going to reduce vulnerabilities and increase resiliency.

All of those ideas from that case study which is not included in the book because the manuscript was completed before the Haiti earthquake. I mention Haiti in the book—in fact, there is one mistake made by the indexer because the hurricanes that hit Haiti is what I mentioned in the book, and the indexer included in the book under "Haiti", the phrase "earthquake", and the earthquake occurred after the book was published.

It was a bit of a mistake, also a bit of prediction, but it was not a prediction by me.

[Slide 7]

If we go to slide 7, you’ll see some of the ideas I’ve outlined in this book regarding a new vision of the emergency manager. I’m suggesting at the end of the book that emergency managers should begin thinking of themselves with a plan of action that is much more strategic in nature and that they should view their function in the community not in the more narrow definition of emergency management that we commonly think of, but we should begin thinking more strategically where we view the emergency manager as a community change agent.

That change agent is focused on 2 kinds of very broad strategic analyses. The first one is asking the question, "What can I do to increase community resilience?" Again, I am focusing here at the community level. I am focusing at the level of the local emergency manager. This has its repercussions all the way up the intergovernmental system.

It suggests that it is the state and local level where we need to be redirecting our priorities. While the state and especially the federal government in terms of funding and resources are extremely important, it is the role that they are playing in helping the local community and the community emergency manager increase community resilience.

So, my idea would be that the manager has got to become involved in engagement. They have got to become involved in empowering community groups so that those groups can proceed to take action that is going to lead to a series of agenda that will increase the resilience of the community in the long run.

Those community groups will not be the same in every community. Hence, an effort to standardize the kind of emergency management approach so that every community is a carbon copy of every other, in my view is short-lived. It is ill-advised. The empowerment has to come from the roots of the community. There will be great diversity in outcomes in terms of the communities that we are going to see, in terms of their resilience.

That doesn’t mean that there are no commonalities, but it does mean that we don’t assume that each community is going to be a carbon copy of the other. Communities are going to increase with the emergency manager as a change agent. The levels of social capital that both the emergency management represents, but also the social capital that other groups, be they family groups, church groups, or volunteer groups, represent in that community.

That social capital of those individual groups will be less effective in the long run if they are not cohesive with each other. As those groups are forming, as they are being nurtured by the wise emergency manager, being encouraged and in some cases being assisted with resources, cohesiveness across those groups becomes another part of the strategic agenda.

Finally, each of those groups as well as the emergency management agency itself, develops a level of social identity and social acceptance that enhances the visibility of the program and the power of the program to perform various elements in the community. I might mention that I read recently an article that was in the July 2010 IAEM bulletin.

The article happens to have been written by Avagene Moore, and when I read it, this is on page 11 of the July issue—if you missed it, I urge you to go back and take a look at it—she called the article "Emergency Management in the USA; Coming Full Circle", and in the article she says, "As a nation, the United States has swung from an admirable independent spirit base on the resourcefulness and resilience of communities and citizens to an unbelievably heavy reliance on federal government programs, plans and funding."

"Currently, the emphasis is on decentralizing federal programs and giving more responsibility to regional and state staff. At the same time, we hear more and more about a holistic view of disaster preparedness with citizens, communities and the private and public sectors being partners in the effort. As communities and individual citizens, we should be independent and resilient."

She concludes the article with this statement: "And thus, America comes full circle in emergency or disaster management as we use our collective and individual knowledge to assure strong, resilient and prepared communities, businesses, families, and citizens at the grassroots level."

It seems to me that Avagene represents in that article a bit of the theme that I ended up developing in the last chapter of my book. I think it reflects a place where some emergency managers have already gotten. It may reflect a place where many other still need to go.

[Slide 8]

I would say that in this effort to develop a new vision, I mentioned there are 2 sides of the coin. One is the issue of resilience—building increased community resilience. The other is decreasing community vulnerabilities. Building the resilience for many is the main focus of their program. Trying to decrease community vulnerabilities is the other element that has to be thought about strategically.

In thinking about those vulnerabilities, it seems to me that emergency managers must recognize that as we have moved as a society, as our businesses have moved during the implementation of new technologies, we have seen more and more centralization of our systems, be they governmental, corporate, banking, or education.

Centralized systems, both for natural disasters and those who want to do us harm—those that we might refer to as terrorists—centralized systems, be they electricity or distribution of precious resources like oil and gas, are going to be more vulnerable. So, we have to begin asking—at what cost do we continue to follow this pattern of high centralization and accept the vulnerabilities that it reflects?

In what ways can we begin decentralizing some of those systems? And that may immediately put us in a place of conflict with the elite in a society who greatly benefit from the profitability of having more centralized systems. It is a complicated matter; it is not one that any single emergency manager is going to solve.

But it begins to raise the questions about how to go about seeing vulnerabilities and maybe seeing them in a new light. High risk locations is probably the easiest area for most emergency managers to examine, and many of them have begun looking at flood prone areas for years. It is a question again of the hard work and understanding and asking—how do we deal with flood prone areas? How do we deal with earthquake prone areas?

And, how do we then put all of that together in terms of a local community understanding of the vulnerabilities that we are creating? Construction standards—another area that reflects this whole issue of vulnerability—and certainly, as we’re seeing now, with more and more years going by since various dams and bridges have been built, the investment was made for the initial structures, but be they dikes, levees, bridges, or what have you, maintenance and renewal becomes a very important part of that.

As a society, we’re seeing report after report coming out indicating that we have not maintained the level of funding or vigilance required in terms of community vulnerabilities that are increasing because of our failure to recognize that once the bridge is built or the dike is built, maintenance has to be a part of it.

Economic inequalities are becoming greater in our society. They have been there with us from the start. We have had times when that level of inequity has begun to be reduced. In the last 10 years especially, we’ve seen all sorts of indicators suggesting that the gaps in our society are growing, and hence, we are increasing a larger number of individual citizens who are going to be more and more vulnerable to any kind of social disruption regardless of what is causing it.

Related to that is the continuing pattern of age, or gender, or racial, or ethnic discrimination that exists in our society. This is another element that if one adopts this more strategic social problems oriented view of emergency management; one has to recognize that the emergency manager’s role has to be expanded.

All of that means that the traditional concepts of preparedness and mitigation and so on are not thrown out the window. What it means is that we look from a much broader perspective in trying to assess our day to day priorities, our longer term yearly plans for activities, and it also means that some of the things that some emergency managers are doing (and I frankly have met some, where they are almost apologetic saying, "I spent a lot of time with that search and rescue group," or "I spent a lot of time with this community group because they were going to have some kind of whine fest"), I say to them, "Look, by your participation and your nurturing, that kind of community cohesiveness, that kind of community group, you are really doing your job as emergency manager. You are really increasing the resilience of that community. When the chips are down, those social networks are going to be, and can be, operationalized."

Again, many don’t make that connection—that those groups can be and must be operationalized. If they are thought through and understood, the emergency manager can help in seeing that grassroots emergence occurs more rapidly, and it can be far more productive in the overall outcome of the quality of the disaster response.

I hope there will be some of you that are listening today that will find these remarks maybe upsetting—some of you may find them controversial, and some of you may decide that you’ve heard enough.

On the other hand, I would hope that in making these remarks, as somebody who has been looking at this field for over 40 years, who has seen the evolution from the days of the Civil Defense director who talked to me ad nauseum about the crackers they had stored, to the kind of newer emergency manager that is now responding. These newer emergency managers seem to be reflecting this broader, more strategic perspective.

Given the prospects for the future, in terms of the disruptions that are going to occur—without trying to be prophesying ill will for anybody—we are going to need all the resources and capabilities the emergency management community can bring.

It is my hope that in thinking more strategically, the profession of emergency management will be able to better bring its plate to the table to improve the quality of life not just for all citizens of the United States, but for others of our species who are residing in other countries—places like Pakistan, that needs so much help right now—places like Chile with the trapped miners that are experiencing their plight as we speak, and so on across the board.

Again, I want to thank Amy and Avagene for letting me have the chance to tell you a little bit about my book and present some of my views. Amy, I’ll turn it back to you now.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Dr. Drabek. You have definitely given us a lot to think about this morning. Now, to proceed to our Q&A. If you have already read Dr. Drabek’s book and would like to share your impressions, I am sure he would be interested in your comments.

[Audience Questions & Answers]

Ed Kostiuk: Look forward to reading your book. Thanks and very enlightening, giving me some thought for my staff and our community.

Ellis Stanley: Great presentation. Using Haiti as an example, how would go about rebuilding Haiti?

Thomas Drabek: I knew I’d get a tough question from some people, and I know that if Ellis Stanley happened to be on the line, I could count on him for a tough question. Ellis, I appreciate you being on the line, and I wish you well. The opportunity to think back to even our brief time together here in Denver brings back good feelings. We hope life is well for you.

As far as a response to your question, what I have to do is simply say, as you might expect, that the rebuilding in Haiti is extremely complicated. There are lots of very smart people who are trying to do just that. Yet, I think that the illustration we might pull out of this is one that is somewhat generic, in terms of broader base.

We saw it with Katrina, and we saw it with some of the same characters. One of the characters I’ll single out is Sean Penn. Sean Penn tried to organize boaters in terms of rescuing people at the time of Katrina. He did so. My understanding is that there were some people who were rescued who might not have been rescued or who might have been delayed in being rescued had that group of spontaneous volunteers not been at hand.

As time went on, then we found there were some individuals who felt that this spontaneous group needed to be corralled in, and the rescue effort was re-mobilized. That is not to take anything away from the very heroic rescuers, especially the role that many Coast Guard people played, because they were phenomenal.

On the other hand, when we go to Haiti, we’ve again got Sean Penn on the scene pleading with people to bring more assistance, to give help that is of an immediate nature in terms of the pressing needs people had, and now trying to provide housing for people that as I understand it, not having been there myself, but from seeing numerous media reports of various types, the problem being first of people like Penn trying to activate more help, and second the coordination among the various groups that are there.

What we are really looking at, it seems to me, is getting beyond the immediate life-threatening and life-debilitating that people are in, but recognizing that this is going to be a very, very long term reconstruction effort, and realizing right away that there are going to be tensions among some of the groups that want to go in different directions, as well as tension among some of the groups and the formal government of Haiti.

All of that has to be negotiated. People like Ellis Stanley who I’ve seen as an effective negotiator are what we need to be able to carry that beyond the plight that many people in Haiti were experiencing before the earthquake occurred. There is no simple answer to that. I appreciate the question, and I am trying to answer with a sense of humility, because of the complexity of what is going to be required.

Warren Campbell:
According to your research, what part does risk communication have in reducing community vulnerability?

Thomas Drabek: Risk communication becomes a very important piece of the overall package of strategies that form a nexus of items for reducing community vulnerability. One approaches risk communication from a standpoint of many different layers.

You can begin by looking at risk communication from the standpoint of communicating vulnerabilities to the community so that over time the political will can be mobilized and generated to take actions, to more appropriately use the environment in sustainable ways. Risk communication becomes a very important aspect of all of that, in terms of the plan by the emergency manager and the community and officials to reduce the vulnerability of the community.

Similarly, when one thinks about risk communication in another sense, one can think about the communication of information across the responding organizations during an actual response. That is the kind of social map I was talking about in terms of the responders. Certainly, the general research and theories behind risk communication are an integral part of the overall package of strategies that the emergency manager has got to integrate into their program.

Amy Sebring: To what extent have you looked at—obviously, you’ve mentioned Haiti and Pakistan—do you find the social problems, or the human side of this to be fairly universal across international communities?

Thomas Drabek: That’s a very good question, and it’s one that I would now take a chance to back step a little bit and let me come at it this way, Amy. The reality is disaster research is a very young field, relatively speaking. The number of people doing this kind of research is relatively small when you start thinking about it on a national basis. As soon as you begin going international, it is even smaller.

There have been several research institutes established in places like England, France, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and so on. We are seeing collaboration between researchers in Italy and the United States, or Australia and the United States, for example, and we are beginning to see a new knowledge base that is truly international in level.

We are just now starting to really hone in, and we’re looking at a couple of decades before this work is going to get very far because of its complexity and issues of cross-national differences. But the point is that there is some continuity when we look at certain principles of response to threat, for example, when we look across nations that seem to have high commonalities in their culture—Australia, England, the United States, and Canada. But when you begin going to other cultures with marked contrast to that of the United States, we really don’t know how far some of this generalization is going to occur.

Similarly, we don’t know how far we can generalize some of our research findings even within the United States to events with very different characteristics. For example, when we take an event of a catastrophic nature, like Katrina, or an event like the 9/11 attacks—those events are outer extremes of our data base. We have a lot of cases of tornados hitting communities in Oklahoma, Kansas, or what have you, but we don’t have the large number of data sets for the more catastrophic events.

Some aspects of this seem to be parallel. Other aspects, we’re beginning to think now, are different especially in terms of the psychological impacts. We don’t have that pinned down very well. So even within the United States, just using that data base, we’ve got problems of sorting out. In the next couple of decades, we’re going to have a much better knowledge base than we’ve got now.

When we go international, and we begin looking at the variations there, that assessment has not gotten along very far. There’s some work, but not very much.

Greg Fisher: What role has policy and legislation from a State and Federal level played in sustaining non-holistic approaches in emergency management?

Thomas Drabek: I gathered when you said "non-holistic approaches", clearly, there are times when I look at some of the programs and I ask myself, "Is this having the consequences intended?" You would have to take several specific cases which I don’t have the confidence or the time today to do, and begin looking at those.

What we need to be doing is looking at the myriad of programs that local managers are being encouraged to implement and begin asking how these programs have unintended consequences in terms of this holistic view that I think many of us as academics are proposing should be guiding the policies and some of the legislation that comes about.

We can’t just deal with one aspect of building more dams, or building more dikes—we’ve got to look much broader in terms of how we are going to go about using flood prone territories, for example. At times, we are seeing some programs coming along that seem to us to have some unintended consequences of giving people the illusion they are going to be safe. And they are, but only for awhile, and perhaps only as long as a major event does not occur.

That’s not to say that we can’t build anywhere, and that’s not to say that anywhere that we do build is forever going to be safe, but it is to say that we need to be looking harder at some of those unintended consequences just like I used the example with the rice.

Candy Adams: I teach Disaster and Society at the University of Central Missouri and used your book last spring for the class. It was an excellent choice for a textbook. Thank you.

Thomas Drabek: Thank you.

Mark Widner: Dr. Drabek, I really appreciated your book. How do your ideas compare to E.L. Quarantelli's Trans System Social Ruptures theory?

Thomas Drabek: I do know what it is, and the idea that Quarantelli has developed fairly recently is one that I do not develop, frankly, unless I were to say that might imply it—but let’s just say I did not try to pick up on that theme very much in the book. That particular theme of ruptures that are occurring across national boundaries is one that Quarantelli was seeing with some of the pandemics, and also in the communications area, where we would get computer hackers in a particular nation.

Let’s say they are hacking into the banking system and affecting—we begin seeing a rupture in the complex computer system that are being used across national banking systems. He’s saying we’ve got vulnerabilities that go far beyond anything we’ve thought about up to this point.

We have airplanes being used as weapons, and we saw the kind of threat that those represented to us. Quarantelli is saying we’ve got bigger problems than that we need to be thinking about. In that sense then, my analysis in the book, I do talk about evolving technologies, and evolving centralization of systems, and I talk about the potential for catastrophe being much greater now because of some of the technologies we have adopted.

Right away, people say, "You’re talking about a problem at an atomic power plant." It’s far more complicated than that. Quarantelli is one of the leading researchers still, even at his age. He is urging us to think more carefully about this type of cross-national type of threat, type of system rupture that is going to get us in trouble some day. Very few people have really pushed the envelope that far. He is Paul Revere saying, "Look we’ve got to think harder".

Daniel Hahn: Dr. Drabek is on the spot! Brilliant. I have been taking this approach to EM in my jurisdiction and I was beginning to think I was crazy for thinking homelessness and other social issues were EM issues. Book is on my shelf.

Thomas Drabek: Good.

John Tommaney: Excellent presentation and looking forward to reading the book! How would you suggest we as emergency managers overcome the apathy of the public at large and leadership about embracing the concepts of preparedness and resiliency?

Thomas Drabek: The way you overcome the apathy is to recognize that people are busy and have priorities. What you have to do is think of how you can link into some of those priorities and thereby increase through risk communication programs their awareness of the vulnerabilities they confront.

You can do that wisely by working with schools, so that in your school programs, as part of their regular curriculum, you integrate a variety of packages that introduce students to the natural environment, the built environment, and the kinds of vulnerabilities that they both represent. You do it by having, with your schools, a greater emphasis on building resilience with everything from first aid programs—working with Red Cross and your schools—to recognizing that sometimes it can be a fun activity.

You work with various groups in the community to organize a fun activity that can be related to a county fair or a music fest, and in doing that, you are helping that community build more social cohesion. Realize that is what you’re trying to accomplish. In doing that, some of the apathy about the emergency management program can be reduced.


Amy Sebring: Time to wrap for today. Thank you very much Dr. Drabek, we appreciate your taking the time to share this information with us. As we see from the comments I am sure I am not the only one who is now looking forward to reading your book.

Now PLEASE take a moment to do the rating/review! I am going to load the rating/review form into Live Meeting so you can complete it on the spot. Note: We are asking you to rate the relevance of the information, and this will assist us in our future programming.

Again, the recording should be available later this afternoon. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page to Subscribe.

We have an exciting announcement about our next program on September 8th. In observance of National Preparedness Month, our guest will be FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate! You won’t want to miss that one, so mark your calendar now.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone for participating today; we do appreciate you. Have a great afternoon. We are adjourned.