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Spontaneous Self-Organization in Disasters

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, July 10, 2015
Disaster Victims are the True First Responders

When disaster strikes, volunteers often act with individual bravery and many of the people spontaneously assembled self-organize into emergent groups that meet specific needs.

 After an earthquake struck Mexico City in 1985  an ad hoc citizen group developed system for transporting food and other necessities to stricken areas. In addition, most of the 500 people pulled from rubble were rescued by volunteers. In a Tansgshan earthquake in 1976, more than 200,000 people trapped in rubble managed to crawl out on their own and go on to rescue others.  During recovery from  tornados in central Florida in 1998 a group of volunteer agencies combined efforts to create a disaster relief center and arrange bus transportation so victim of the damage to get to it. These are among the disaster responses described in a Journal of Emergency Management article by Lauren Fernandez and colleagues.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, telecommunication workers and companies quickly joined in creating a system and process to identify the location of the mobile phones of missing persons to aid in search and rescue efforts in the rubble of the World Trade Centers. More organizations throughout the country joined the newly created Wireless Emergency Response Team, and WERT aided in t he 2005 rescue operations in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Duke University behavioral economics professor Daniel Ariely has observed that people tend to feel altruistic immediately after crises, because the chaotic conditions of disaster emphasize how interdependent people are. Further, he suggests, helpful behavior tends to be contagious—people see those around them helping each other and that becomes the norm.

Fernandez and colleagues stress that survival in disasters relies on volunteers and local people in the stricken community as well as professionally trained first responders. Disaster scholar Kathleen Tierney is a sociology professor and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has studied individual and societal responses to a range of calamities including hurricanes, floods,  tornados, earthquakes, fires, terrorist attacks and technological disruptions. Tierney has suggested that since 9/11 official governmental emergency response efforts have overemphasized military and law enforcement strategies and undervalued the role of spontaneous volunteers. She also examined the impact of race, education and economic status on surviving and withstanding hazards of disaster. Tierney says research has consistently shown community residents are the real first responders. She recommends grass root and community-based organizations be involved in planning for extreme events.   

Such extreme weather events as tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts and tornadoes, and disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, terror attacks and contagious disease outbreaks regularly occupy headlines. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will heighten temperatures over most and masses and other changes in ocean movement and temperature that influence weather have been documented. While scientists rarely relate a particular weather event to climate change, experts say overall trends raise the risk of more intense storms, higher wind speeds and more drought and flooding. Social scientists cite a growing need to build resilient communities and adaptive responses to preparedness and emergency response.  

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