The Human Side of Disaster

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  • Identifies the range of behaviors that comprise the typical response set
  • Discusses the need for increased community warning systems and the role of government in developing warnings that work
  • Explores the importance of unofficial warning systems and response patterns
  • Provides a clear understanding of the evacuation process and the complexities of large-scale evacuations
  • Outlines a new theory for effective disaster management based on a multiorganizational network


When disaster strikes, people react, and usually, fear levels rise. Temporarily, however, one motivation supersedes all others: survival of self and those nearby, especially loved ones. Based on the author’s years of research and teaching experience, The Human Side of Disaster scientifically evaluates human responses in the face of disasters. This examination informs emergency managers and response teams and teaches them how to anticipate human behaviors in-crisis.

The book begins with four scenarios based on interviews and real events that introduce the human side of disaster. The stories examine how attention to, or lack of, preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation affect outcomes. Each subsequent chapter refers back to the original Experiences chapter and provides insights that can be applied not only to events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods, but also to man-made threats including industrial accidents and acts of terrorism. The author explores how people’s responses can be predicted, the long term effects of disaster on the psyche, and the key issues involved in recovery.

A balanced interpretation of research, results, and experience, the book demonstrates how traditional warning methods and high-tech systems can work together to improve communications, evacuations, and reconstruction efforts. It highlights the role of the human element in any disaster situation and demonstrates how to use that element as part of a planned disaster response.

Table of Contents

The Taxi
The Earring
The Honeymoon
The Ceiling
The Insights
The Problem and Approach
The Danger around You Is Increasing
The Many Faces of Disaster
The Approach
The Insights
Hear That Siren?
Who Panics and Why
Neutralizing Threat Information
Doing It Right
But Not Everyone Responds the Same
The Insights
It Can’t Be Done
That Lady Named Carla
A Disaster Subculture?
The Mythology of Car Wrecks
“Resisters? We’ll Arrest Them!”
Confirmation: A Likely Action
Families Are the Units
The Insights
Shall We Leave?
Pathways to Evacuation
Where Do They Go?
“We Wanna Go Home”
Evacuation Facilitators
An Aside: Crisis Relocation Planning and Homeland Security Advisory System
The Insights
Why Me?
Victim Responses
The Disaster Syndrome: Another Myth Exploded
Heroes: They Are for Real
Helpers: How Many Are There?
“Where Is My Daughter?”
But There Are Constraints
The Insights
Volunteers? You Bet!
The Flood Breakers
Are Volunteers Like Yachts?
The Utopian Mood
Unveiling the Many Forms of Volunteerism
The Insights
Raining in Indianapolis
“But We Deal with Emergencies Daily”
Sorting Out Organizational Responders
Is Communication the Problem?
Social Map: Lake Pomona Communication Structure
Cooperation Is Not Enough
The Insights
Life in a Fishbowl
The Bitch Phase
Looting Fears
Bad Dreams
Short-Term Oscillations
Windows of Opportunity
“When Can We Go Home?”
The Insights
What about My Psyche?
An Atypical Example
Modal Patterns
Patterned Variations
Kinfolk and Friends
“This Is My Mother”
The Insights
What Must Be Done?
Variable Perceptions of Risk
Disasters Are Nonroutine Social Problems
Professionalism in Emergency Management
Strategies for Maintaining Organizational Integrity
Disaster Response Coordination Strategies
Concluding Principles
Suggested Readings

Author Bio(s)

Editorial Reviews

This book is the culmination of a career-long quest to translate decades of research findings to students, emergency management professionals, and the general population. … He has succeeded with a style of writing that is personal, non-technical, and highly informative.
—Gary Kreps, The College of William and Mary

…an excellent book that presents well-documented research findings in an entertaining and engaging style. … expands on important disaster-related knowledge beyond the typical academic and professional communities. It is therefore unique among texts, and contributes much to our understanding of human behavior in disaster situations.
—David McEntire, Department Chair and Professor, University of North Texas

… a unique and much needed book. It grows out of Drabek’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…anyone interested in exploring human aspects of disaster, regardless of their locale, will find much food for thought…a welcome addition to the literature in the field.
—William A. Anderson, Ph.D., National Research Council, National Academy of Science

… an entertaining case-based look at human response to disaster—puncturing myths, pointing out truths, and exploring the progress of disaster from warnings to ‘why me?
Natural Hazards Observer

One of the main strengths of the book is the easy flow and readability of the text. The personal experiences and informal writing style allow the reader to be immersed in the book. The author's expertise is evident throughout the book and is backed by rigorous research. The book should be required reading for college students, emergency planning personnel, policy makers, and for anyone who works in emergency and disaster relief. It is a great read that is hard to put down.
—Marlis Glenda Anne Bruyere, University of Atlanta, Ontario, Canada, in the Journal of Social Science