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  • Katy L. Wood

Random Thoughts: My Favorite Part of Disaster Research

This question was originally asked and answered on Tumblr on April 3rd, 2024. See original.


Anonymous asked:

What's your favorite part of disaster research?

Thank you for the lovely compliment!

Ohohoo. I could go on about this one for HOURS.

But, at it's core: my favorite thing is looking into how and why we tell disaster stories the way we do, both in fiction and non-fiction. As an extension of that, how the fiction and non-fiction aspects intersect. Why do we focus on the elements we do? Why does media coverage of disasters work the way it does? Why do we believe so many myths about disasters like looting and panic behavior and everyone-for-themselves? How can we use fiction to better inform non-fiction, and non-fiction to better inform fiction?

Here's an example of fiction to better inform non-fiction: in Emergency Management, it's a common sentiment that it isn't necessarily the plan you come up with that's useful, it's the act of making that plan. The actual plan you make is probably going to fall apart at some point, because you can never plan perfectly. A plan is fiction. It's fiction heavily based in reality, but it is still imagining scenarios that have not actually happened. But in the act of making it you are going to learn so much about yourself, the people you work with, the place you live, etc. and that knowledge is going to be what saves you.

A perfect example of this is Gander, Canada during 9/11. Gander is a little town that also happens to have the eastern most airport in Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada that can take large passenger jets. In the 90s, as everyone was preparing for Y2K, Gander realized that if we did have a worst-case Y2K, there would be a ton of jets stranded over the Atlantic that would need a place to land immediately, and that meant landing in Gander. So they made a plan. They fictionalized the scenario to figure out what they would need to do to deal with that outcome. But then Y2K didn't amount to much and the plan was thrown away, because they'll never need a plan like that again, right?

Cut to almost two years later when 9/11 occurs and what happens? Air traffic in the US is shut down and suddenly there's tons of jets stranded over the Atlantic with nowhere to go and desperate for a place to land. So what does Gander do? They've thrown out their actual plan for this. But it didn't matter because they'd learned from it, and they remembered what they'd learned. Gander ended up taking in nearly 7,000 refugees from dozens of jets. It nearly doubled their population in just a handful of hours. Everyone in town came together to get these people safe, get them comfortable, and help them figure out what the hell to do next. (There's actually a Broadway musical about it called "Come From Away.")

So how do we make those sorts of plans? How do we develop them to be as helpful as possible in a way that is understandable and digestible so that it can be as effective as possible?

Then, of course, there's non-fiction informing fiction which is a bit more obvious as to how that all works. We've been doing studies since WWII that have told us how people behave in disasters, and it very much does not match the way Hollywood usually portrays it. So why? Why are we so obsessed with these disaster myths? Why are those the core aspects our cultures keep sinking their teeth into?

So. Yeah. :P

That's my favorite aspect of disaster stuff. I may or may not be looking into pursuing a PhD at this point. >.>

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