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Recent Reading: The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley - Mo's Journal
March 11th, 2009
02:16 pm


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Recent Reading: The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley
This book is getting a lot of attention in emergency preparedness circles, but it's really written for a lay audience and she is a journalist and has an easy-to-read, Time Magazine-ish style. The author interviewed survivors of 9/11, Katrina, a variety of hostage situations, plane crashes etc. as well as investigating stories of some who did not survive. It is chock full of simple, common-sense things people can do to improve their chances of surviving large scale disasters or smaller tragedies (like car accidents and fires), as well as ideas for policy

I have found that my behavior is already changing from reading this book, and I think just because it's the field I work in, I was already more prepared than most. The first thing I did was to learn how to exit my office building in an emergency. It's amazing to me that I really didn't know. I have worked in skyscrapers almost the whole time I've lived in NYC (which is almost 30 years). I've been evacuated from a skyscraper more than once - once when pregnant with Doran. I've been working at this office for over a year and I had no idea how to get out quickly. We do fire drills regularly and - just like all the other high buildings I've worked in - we gather in the elevator lobby until the all clear, get told not to take elevators during an emergency, and get told to wait for further instructions in event of a real emergency.

Those were exactly the drills that were done in the WTC and they didn't help in either of the attacks. People didn't realize that the stairs don't go straight down, that you have to cross over to a different stairwell. It also was very dark in the stairwells, which slowed things down (although better in 2001 because they put glow-in-the-dark tape in the stairwells after the 1993 attack. So, now I know exactly where the stairs are in my building, that they do go straight down, where they exit to, and that they don't have glow-in-the-dark tape (but I'm working on that part). I also plan on going down all 28 floors one day, to simulate evacuating.

Other things to know:

- Find the exits anywhere you go (I usually do this pretty naturally, which is why it was a surprise to me that I really didn't know enough about exiting the place I'm most likely to have to evacuate)

- Practice controlled breathing regularly to be able to do it in a high stress situation

- Instinct leads you to stop and gather things when you need to evacuate. Just knowing that you will feel that but that it makes it less likely you'll survive can help you not do it.

- In particular, getting carry on luggage before exiting a plane in a crash landing costs lives.

- Don't inflate your life vest on a plane until after you exit. They tell you that, but people often don't listen and it really slows you down.

More generally, it was reassuring in terms of people's behavior in emergency situations. There's much less "mob" behavior than you might think and much more kind, cooperative, and helpful behavior, albeit somewhat misguided sometimes (like the gathering). And people mostly do what they're told if someone seems to know what they're doing. So if you know what you're doing, take charge - people will follow.

The Unthinkable is also at times very moving in its telling of personal stories. There's individual heroism described, but also whole communities that work together to ensure that everyone survives. And some profoundly affecting reflections on how individuals feel changed by the roles they played in disaster situations.

It was also really good in recommending policy changes. One of her main themes is that policy focuses too much on technology and on first responder preparedness and not enough on ordinary citizen preparedness. As she points out, in many situations, it's the people who are affected by the disaster who are truly the first responders. It's clear in the ones we know about (9/11, Katrina) but she had great examples I didn't know about, including a tsunami in Hawaii in 1960 when the tsunami sirens worked perfectly but people didn't know to go to high ground when they heard them, so they died :-(.

I got the book from my library with not much notice - I imagine most libraries have it. One minor warning: I think they rushed it into print, since it's poorly edited. There were a number of small errors of fact (probably more than I knew, but I spotted the ones about 9/11. I find any time I read a journalist's account of an event I was at or a subject I know a lot about I find a bunch of errors, which makes me doubt, at least briefly, the stuff I read in the paper and believe since I don't know anything about it). Also the index had the wrong pages in a few cases, which again evidences poor editing. If you can overlook that failing it's both a really interesting read and a worthwhile one.

(2 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:March 11th, 2009 06:48 pm (UTC)
I don't think the poor editing has to do with rushing into print--I think it has to do with publishers feeling that editing books is just a useless expense.
[User Picture]
Date:March 12th, 2009 02:06 pm (UTC)
You may be right. I guess mine was just the optimistic explanation. In any event, it's quite a good book and I still have hope they'll fix some of the problems if there is a second edition.
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