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ASA Congressional Briefing Examines Policy Implications Regarding Disasters

by Lee Herring, Public Affairs and Public Information Office

By defining events as natural disasters or acts of God, we emphasize the inevitability of catastrophe and fail to recognize both the man-made sources of our vulnerability and the social fault lines that determine who is at risk.
—Eric Klinenberg, commenting on the deaths of 20,000 people in the summer of 2003 heat wave in Europe. International Herald Tribune, August 22, 2003.

What do the World Trade Center, the Challenger Space Shuttle, Hurricane Hugo, and the Loma Prieta Earthquake have in common? These spectacular disasters captured the attention of mass media, the American people, and government agencies as we asked how the loss of human life and damage to property could have been prevented. Yet these distinct events emerge from very different social and natural contexts.

Two of these events would be considered natural disasters—products of our natural geologic and atmospheric worlds. Recent human induced disasters include the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks involving fully fueled aircraft willfully steered toward terrorist targets —also facilitated by other human and organizational failures in air transportation security. The 1986 Challenger explosion has been attributed to malfunctions of defective “O” rings and the poor judgment of NASA engineers. The 2003 Columbia crash has human origins in the inherent complexity of space aircraft technology and the evolution of NASA’s organizational culture surrounding safety/risk, tolerance, expectations, and decisions (see November 2003 Footnotes, p. 5).

ASA Briefing

Given the central role of social factors in the causation of, or the intentional or accidental facilitation of, some disasters, ASA organized a congressional briefing in late October focused on human dimensions of disasters. Titled The Human Dimension of Disasters: How Social Science Research Can Improve Preparedness, Response, and Recovery, and held on Capitol Hill, the well-attended briefing was co-sponsored by the George Washington University Institute for Crisis Disaster and Risk Management (ICDRM), and the Senate Natural Hazards Caucus Work Group. (For additional details about the briefing see

During the briefing, three sociological researchers and an engineer offered perspectives on disasters and proposed public policy innovations based on their research on terrorist attacks, community disasters and recoveries, health epidemics, and heat waves. The panel included: Kathleen Tierney, Director of the Natural Hazards Research Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder; Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University expert on organizations, culture, and disasters; Eric Klinenberg, an assistant professor of urban sociology at New York University who has done a social autopsy of the 1995 Chicago heat wave; and John Harrald, Director of George Washington University’s ICDRM.

The briefing attracted an engaged crowd of nearly 60 federal policymakers and leaders, congressional staff, local government, and other decisionmakers having a stake in the outcome of disasters. They hailed from a wide variety of organizations (e.g., the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Government Reform Committee, American Geological Institute), and even a local Maryland city mayor attended.

The Message

A consistent theme across research findings from studies of disasters is that socially vulnerable and marginal populations are most in need of community-based supports to enable them to survive the impact of a disaster. Thus understanding how social vulnerabilities are structured within a community, neighborhood, city, or society is critically important to increase resistance to, buffering from, and resilience during extremely damaging events.

Tierney’s former institution (the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center (see sidebar on this page)) had shared information with New York City agencies and organizations in the wake of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. A core message to people managing and participating in recovery efforts is that grassroots organizations acting collaboratively create the most effective and adaptive responses to emergency problems within their communities. The flexibility, existing social ties, and knowledge of the community embedded in these organizations makes networks of local organizations more effective than hierarchical bureaucracies attempting to operate in turbulent environments characteristic of disasters.

After decades of studying disasters—including floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes—one of the strongest findings that Clarke sees across events is that people rarely panic or abandon control in the face of a disaster. Contrary to this “panic myth,” Clarke finds that people act to help those in danger who are physically near them, and they are willing to put themselves in danger to help others. He distinguished the official “first responders” (i.e., police, firefighters, emergency medical staff) from these unofficial “first responders” at disaster sites. The latter are ordinary people and include teachers with their students, construction workers (e.g., assisting earthquake victims on highway overpasses), neighbors, co-workers, friends, and strangers. This reality of human response suggests that resources that enable communities to prepare for and survive disasters should be placed in schools, churches, and workplaces, where “first response” occurs.

Emphasizing the importance of official responders (e.g., local government representatives) maintaining credibility with citizens during crises (see April 2003 Footnotes, p. 5), Clarke pointed out that the loss of life can be needlessly increased if the population comes to distrust what they are being told by government agencies. In the1894 smallpox outbreak in Milwaukee, the government’s inflexible and uninformed methods of forcibly rounding up citizens for vaccination or quarantine evoked fear among immigrant populations and caused a month-long riot. In addition, many immigrants did not report cases of smallpox. The resulting 1,100 cases of smallpox and nearly 300 deaths contrast sharply with the reaction to the 1947 smallpox outbreak in New York City, where “the government worked through local churches and local organizations. Citizens lined up in an orderly fashion and got vaccinated,” said Clarke. Health officials promptly reported to the public each case of smallpox, and the fact that there were only 12 cases of smallpox and two deaths is attributed largely to the resulting credibility of the government.

Natural vs. Nurtured Disasters

Klinenberg’s “social autopsy” of a devastating three-day heat wave in Chicago in the summer of 1995 suggests that often distinctions cannot easily be made between so-called natural disasters caused by extreme weather and man-made disasters caused by human negligence, poor judgment, or willful behavior. The extremes of nature and human errors blur in his investigation of the causes of 700 deaths in the heat wave. This autopsy reveals social processes in the city that broke down and contributed to high numbers of deaths. These were primarily deaths of the most vulnerable and needy in Chicago—elderly people living in poverty and isolation.

Klinenberg found that failure to coordinate information from hospitals and emergency facilities that closed due to patient overload, and failure of the city to request additional paramedics and ambulances from Chicago suburbs contributed to the high numbers of deaths. Klinenberg points to an emerging social “disaster in slow motion,” occurring in a society that has increasing numbers of older people. Large numbers of elderly people are isolated from social networks, confined to deteriorated urban neighborhoods where they may lack access to fresh food and water, and are afraid to leave their homes for fear of gang violence. By the very nature of their circumstances, these marginalized people have increased potential to escalate death tolls by virtue of their exceptional vulnerability. Our responses to disasters show us how we value and understand the needs of—as well as care for, or fail to care for—the most vulnerable. As we understand the disproportionate impacts of disasters on vulnerable people—children, elderly, poor, isolated and disabled—it should lead us to rethink how to better incorporate these populations within the ordinary social interactions and protective orbits of our neighborhoods and shared local spaces.

One salient factor that emerges in disaster research is the centrality of the localness of both causes and responses. Disasters impact populations that share space in a city, in a neighborhood, in a building. Our proximity in space and time brings us collectively into zones of danger. How we respond to catastrophes reveals how we live within shared spaces.

Schaafsma, formerly of the University of Chicago’s Sloan Center, is a Legislative Fellow on the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. She is ASA’s eleventh Congressional Fellow supported by the Spivack Program in Applied Social Research and Social Policy.

Recommended Reading

The speakers on The Human Dimension of Disasters congressional briefing panel have contributed to social science research on disasters. Here are examples of their recent publications:

  • Clarke, Lee. Ed. 2003. Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas. Vol.11, Research in Social Problems and Public Policy. Stamford, Connecticut: LAI Press.
  • Clarke, Lee. 1999. Mission Impossible: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame Disaster. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Klinenberg, Eric. 2002. Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Tierney, Kathleen, Michael Lindell, Ronald Perry. 2001. Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States. Washington, DC: John Henry Press.

For a brief description of these texts and a “Top-12” list of additional research on disasters in the social sciences, see the annotated bibliography at