“The truth is usually better than the nightmare.” What do we do when the unthinkable happens?

12 April 2018

reading time:  minutes

How do people respond when the unthinkable happens? How should we respond?

The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley is a terrific book that covers these very questions. It’s interesting and valuable, and somehow leaves you feeling more optimistic about humanity.

Ripley talks about extreme circumstances and events, and how people tend to act when the unthinkable happens. She provides guidance for how we can improve our chances if the unthinkable occurs.

It sounds fatalistic. But somehow I found this book cheering. While covering some dark content, the book actually has a positive tone. As Ripley herself says, “Ironically, after writing a book about disasters, I feel less anxious overall, not more… Having studied dozens of plane crashes, I’m more relaxed when I’m flying… The truth, it turns out, is usually better than the nightmare.” I think it’s one of those coward-dies-a-thousand-deaths-a-hero-only-one kind of things.

Ripley canvasses a number of disasters. Of course, 9/11 features heavily. As does Hurricane Katrina. The book opens with the explosion of the Mont Blanc in Halifax harbour in Nova Scotia on 6 December 1917. It also talks about the tsunamis in Thailand on Boxing Day 2004. She reveals quite a few interesting tidbits:

  • Talking about the Thailand tsunamis, Ripley talks about an English schoolgirl Tilly Smith saving many people by noticing the water going out and saying “Mummy, we must get off the beach now. I think there is going to be a tsunami.” She had learned this at school.
  • Of Hurricane Katrina, Ripley says that “the victims of Katrina were not disproportionately poor; they were disproportionately old. Three-quarters of the dead were over sixty…. Half were over seventy-five. They had been middle aged when Hurricane Camille struck. ‘I think Camille killed more people during Katrina than it did in 1969,’ says Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Centre.”
  • 9/11 could have been much worse. The attacks were on the same day as the mayoral election – many people were late to work to vote. Others had taken children to school for the first day of classes. NYSE doesn’t open until 9.30, so the trading floor wasn’t fully staffed. Furthermore, the Trade Centre’s visiting platform didn’t open to tourists until 9.30am.

The onus is on us as individuals

One of the key themes in the book is the importance of the individual in a disaster. Ripley starts and ends the book making the same point:

  • “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.”
  • “It’s only once disaster strikes that ordinary citizens realize how important they are.”
  • the bigger the disaster, the longer we will be on our own. No fire department can be everywhere at once”. (Think about it from this perspective: at this very moment can you see an emergency worker nearby?)

Panic and paralysis

Don’t think “fight or flight”. Think “fight, flight, or freeze”. And never underestimate how many people will freeze.

When the unthinkable happens, panic is less common than we might think. Paralysis is much more common.

In fact, “The fear of panic may be more dangerous than panic itself”. One expert explains by asking: “Do you know how many Americans have died because someone thought they would panic if they gave them a warning?”. The answer is a lot. 

What is more common is that people are more likely to shut down than panic in a disaster. “Crowds generally become very quiet and docile in a true disaster… Most of the time, people remain consistently orderly – and kind, much kinder than they would have been on a normal day.” “Contrary to popular expectations, this is what happens in a real disaster. Civilisation holds. People move in groups whenever they can. They are usually far more polite than they are normally. They look out for one another, and they maintain hierarchies.” People were relatively calm and orderly in the stairwells during 9/11.

Interesting points:

  • On 9/11, women were almost twice as likely [than men] to get injured while evacuating, according to a Columbia study. Was it a question of strength? Confidence? Fear? No, says lead investigator Robyn Gershon. ‘It was the shoes.’ Many women took off their heels halfway through the evacuation and had to walk home barefoot. Survivors reported tripping over piles of high-heeled shoes in the staircases.”
  • Most serious plane accidents are survivable – “Of all passengers involved in serious accidents between 1983 and 2000, 56 percent survived.”
  • Carry-on bags are a major problem in plane crashes… plane-crash survivors report that these collected vary-on bags posted a major obstacle to getting out quickly and safely”. Taking luggage costs lives. 
  • Teenagers taught [to drive] by their parents are more than twice as likely to be involved in serious accidents than those taught by professionals“. (A 2007 study by the Texas Transportation Institute.)
  • [M]oney matters more than anything else in most disasters. Which is another way of saying that where and how we live matters more than Mother Nature. Developed nations experience just as many natural disasters as undeveloped nations. The difference is in the death toll.” “for those who survive, money is a form of liquid resilience: it can bring treatment, stability, and recovery.”


risk management, sunshine

About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or a popular author of erotic, supernatural, mystery novellas. Sometimes he says he was in a band that opened for Robbie Williams. None of these are true.

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