Surviving Disasters

I happened to pick up Time’s June 9 print issue. It had a photo of a red fire alarm and a cover story by Amanda Ripley: “How to Survive a Disaster”. Ripley opens with: “Disasters are becoming more frequent and more costly. But there are steps all of us can take — right now — to improve our chances of survival.”

disasterAs weather and geographic systems become devastatingly unpredictable and urban structures appear to buckle unexpectedly under the sheer weight of human movement (or human error), I thought it might not be a bad idea to learn some skills. Beyond keeping a flashlight and an army knife in the house.

Based on interviews with “survivors of unimaginable tragedies”, Ripley offers these tips which I crudely summarize as:

1. Don’t panic and freeze up. Under extreme stress and fear, many people become paralyzed — and do not survive. “If we can reduce our own fear even a little bit, we might be able to do better.”

2. Anticipate that people will stick to their roles. When a hotel fire broke out, employees took charge and guests waited to be led. “…if a real disaster should come to pass, people will rise to the expectations set by their CEO or headwaiter, and they will follow their leader almost anywhere.”

3. One person can make a difference. Ripley relates the heartbreaking story of Rick Rescorla, head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, whose actions before and on September 11, 2001 saved 2,687 lives — but not his own.

4. Be prepared. Rescorla saved those lives by putting employees through surprise fire drills years before. He believed that “the more control people feel they have over their predicament, the better their performance… The best way to get the brain to perform under extreme stress is… rehearsals beforehand.”

I couldn’t help thinking about the current state of the American government and economy. Disasters. And I couldn’t help noticing that Ripley’s survival tips transpose quite well.

So, tip #1: When you read that oil reaches $150 a barrel, don’t panic. We’ll all have a better chance of getting through this.

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