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What Actually Happens During a Disaster: It's Not What You Expect

Let’s pretend that a disaster just happened; an earthquake near your home that has leveled buildings and killed hundreds. Thankfully, you’ve survived, but what’s going to happen now?

You probably have a good idea of what life will be like after a disaster. But you might be wrong! A lot of research has been done about the human condition during and after a disaster and the findings might surprise you.

One of the biggest myths about a disaster is that there will be mass panic. We’ve seen countless movies and TV shows where people forget the needs of others and adopt an “every man for himself” mentality. This self-interested survival behavior is typically referred to as panic.

While we think that panic is a very common occurrence in a disaster, historically, it has not been the case. This isn’t to say that it couldn’t happen in the future but consistent research has shown that the concept is, at best, over exaggerated.1 Instead, the real problem is an unwillingness to believe clear warnings.2 Researchers have identified a few situations where real panic happens:

1. A person perceives an immediate threat to self or significant others.
2. A belief that escape from the threat is possible but that routes are closing rapidly.
3. A feeling of helplessness in otherwise dealing with the threat, particularly when others are not able to help you.

It’s interesting to note that if the person believes there is no hope of escape, such as with a mine collapse, no panic occurs.3

Take a famous example, the sinking of the Titanic. In 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank in 2 hours and 40 minutes. Within a few hours, 75% of the women and children passengers were saved on the ship.4 When given more time, passengers did what they was chivalrous and saved the women and children.

Compare that to a not-so-famous example: the sinking of RMS Lusitania in 1915. The boat was hit by a torpedo and sank in a matter of 18 minutes. The boat was made up of the same demographic of passengers who had the same views of chivalry and social expectations. Surprisingly, the survival rate was similar (31.3% vs 38.5% respectively)5. This time though, the threat was imminent and those in their prime age (ages 16-30) had the highest rate of survival.6 The chance of survival didn’t improve based on gender but instead on age and health.

RMS Titanic
RMS Lusitania
Passengers & Crew
Time to Sink
2 hrs 40 min
18 min
Female Survival Rate
Male Survival Rate
Child Survival Rate
Survival Rate

So why do we believe in panic? There are a few reasons, but most of it is because that’s what we expect.7

In 1977, a fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, resulted in 164 deaths. Newspapers at the time carried headlines such as “Panic Kills 300,” “Panic and 300 Stampede to Death,” and “A Killer Called Panic.”8 However, an investigation by the National Fire Protection Association found that most deaths in the event did not occur because of panic but instead occurred because of a lack of seriousness regarding the fire warning. The club’s Cabaret Room, where the performing comedian continued on stage after the announcement of a fire, is where most of the deaths in the event occurred.9

Think of any time a fire alarm has gone off in your home or at work. Your first reaction isn’t to immediately evacuate the building. You usually investigate where the fire might be to see if there is a real threat or not. Many times you’ll ask a co-worker whether this is a real fire or just a drill.10

Antisocial Self-Interest
Most people fear that panic after a disaster will cause people to act selfishly and disregard the people around them. Researchers have found however, that social bonds are usually not broken during a disaster or emergency. Instead these bonds are solidified and even created.11

Separation from family can actually cause more stress during an emergency. Families will often delay emergency evacuations until all family members are accounted for and safe.12 Even during a disaster, strangers bond over a sense of danger and fate. Reports of selfless acts also increase during a disaster.13

In most major disasters, the first search-and-rescue efforts are performed by disaster survivors within the community. After a tornado in Wichita, Texas, in 1979, only 13% of the 5,000 victims reported that they had been rescued by someone they recognized as belonging to an emergency organization.14 15

You’re probably thinking, “Yes, that’s great but I’m not worried about people during an emergency. I’m worried about the aftermath of an emergency!” A widespread belief is that looting, stealing or other lawless behaviors such as violent crimes are very common after a disaster.

However, extensive research has shown that there is no evidence for this fear and that this type of behavior is extremely rare - especially in highly urbanized and industrial countries.16

The belief of looting is that a disaster offers a perfect opportunity for the surfacing of the criminal’s devious behavior. They speculate that survivors and their homes are easy targets because their guards are down and during an emergency, property crimes will rise, violent crimes will increase and exploitative behavior will be widespread. However, the evidence doesn’t lend any support to these ideas.17

If you compare the crime statistics of a normal day to the looting reported during and directly after a disaster, the numbers show that looting is far less common than crime on a regular day.18 In fact, the vast majority of arrests for looting were around stores instead of residential homes.19

Interestingly, more than 58% of the impacted population in a disaster area will hear a news or media report about looting in their area.20 News agencies in the area will typically highlight reports of the deployment of security forces in the area to prevent looting. The idea of looting is so prevalent that government officials will typically utilize their forces to prevent looting without demand because they think the public expects it.21

But we’ve all seen looting in the news right? So we know it does happen. But in reality, the reasons for looting are very different than you might assume. In fact, looting after disasters is a very rare occurrence. Typically, looting is more common with civic protests than with disasters.

Most often, rioters will begin looting because of years of what they perceive as social injustice.

In the past, we can see that looting occurred in communities where unemployment and underemployment are very high. The community feels frustrated about lack of resources, powerlessness and feeling that they have been denied access to common goods for years.

Interestingly, looters don’t usually act alone. Because of the community’s feeling of injustice, they will bond together and take out their frustrations on businesses, homes or locations that they believe symbolize this injustice. For example, in the 1980 Bristol riots, many shops were untouched because they were regarded as part of the community. A bank, on the other hand, came under heavy attack because it was perceived as a symbol of authority.22

The looters view themselves as a mob of justice, finally having the power to rectify the injustice that has been done to their community.

The group is usually led by a small number of people who decide where the rioters should move and who deserves to be looted.23 Rioters and looters will most often stay in their own community.24

Media want to report on things that are noteworthy, so they will often report about lawlessness in a disaster because it has a direct connection to the society at large or even governmental policies about law in a disaster. Even during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, looters and lawbreakers were vastly over-reported in the media, which forced the government to deploy troops to prevent looting instead of rescuing stranded families.25

This isn’t to say that the media’s representations of disasters are all bad. In fact, many of the reports are very accurate. The media dedicates lots of resources to covering disasters and many times helps locate victims, reunite families and shed light on unique situations after an emergency. However, much of the reporting is highly oversimplified and ignores the diversity of victim responses to the disaster.26 Most of the media frames victims in one of two ways; that they are thugs taking advantage of the disaster or they are helpless victims stranded after the storm.

Scarcity of Goods
Many people assume that looting is common after a disaster because of the lack of resources after an emergency. They assume that people around them will not be prepared and will become desperate for food or other necessities.

A survey in 2012 showed that up to 76% of Americans would be willing to share their own resources or supplies.27 Over 42% of respondents said they would share their resources with neighbors that they knew well while 29% said they would share with acquaintances they didn’t know so well.

Only 3% of respondents said they would not share with anyone.

In the event of a catastrophe, who would you be willing to share your own resources or supplies with? Please choose all that apply.
Immediate Family Members Such as Parents and Siblings
Significant Others
Close Friends
Extended Family Members Such as Aunts and Uncles
Neighbors that I Know Very Well
Acquaintances or Friends of Friends
My Children (Asked Among Parents)
Neighbors that I Don't Know Very Well

Stress and Grief
Most people believe that the grieving process is a series of stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We’ve been taught that we have to “work through” these stages of grief. However, most psychologists are finding the opposite.

They are finding that instead of these stages, people will bounce in and out of grief with intense moments of emotion - either good or bad - and the emotions will slowly work themselves back to normal levels. While most people assume that the grieving process takes months or years, psychologists have shown that most people overcome grief in a matter of days or weeks.28

Many studies have shown that people have a natural resilience to overcome the emotional impact of disasters.29 In fact, a few different studies illustrate this principle:

For example, a study of New York City residents soon after the Sept. 11 attacks showed that many of the respondents did in fact, show symptoms of PTSD, especially those that were directly involved in the incident. However, the majority of those respondents - 65% - self-reported that they had experienced no trauma related symptoms since the attack. They were not able to see the symptoms in themselves.30

Another study of Israeli citizens assessed during and after rocket attacks on their city, focused on symptoms of PTSD. During and directly after the attacks, psychologists estimated that 20% of the respondents had PTSD. However, within two months, the number had decreased to only 3% of the population.31

Humans are more resilient than we realize. The best thing you can do to help others is listen and talk with them. Grief has been shown to diminish quickly with a few different factors including the support of a spouse or family, having a higher education and with older age.32

More than anything, research about human psychology during and after an emergency shows us that we need each other. Humans are very social and as such, depend on each other for support and comfort. While most people assume that there will be mass panic and it will be “every man for himself,” history has shown us that humans, instead, bind together and help one another in the worst situations.

What do you think? Comment below and tell us your thoughts.

1. Scanlon, J. 2014. “Research about the Mass Media and Disasters” FEMA. Scanlon Journalism.
2. Quarantelli & Dynes. 1972. When Disaster Strikes (It Isn’t Much Like What You’ve Heard and Read About)” Psychology Today Vol. 5 No. 9 pp: 66-70
3. Gantt, Paul & Ron. 2012. “Disaster Psychology: Dispelling the Myth of Panic” Asse.org. August edition.
4. Titanic Facts. The Life & Loss of the RMS Titanic in Numbers. Survivors. Obtained online at www.titanicfacts.net/titanic-survivors.html
5. Zielinski, Sarah. 2010. “Titanic vs Lusitania: Who Survived and Why?” Smithsonianmag.com. Obtained online at www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/titanic-vs-lusitania-who-survived-and-why-24622866/

16 thoughts on “What Actually Happens During a Disaster: It's Not What You Expect”

  • Ray White

    I agree that initially we will pull together and that social bonds are strong enough to keep society from falling apart overnight. But should a widespread, long term disaster occur, such as an EMP that knocks out the power grid (and fries the computers in our vehicles) that prevents food deliveries from reaching our cities then people will run out of food and many will run out of potable water. When that happens and children begin to starve, desperation will overcome ethics and morality and people will do whatever is needed to preserve themselves and their children. If that means looting or killing others that is what they will do. Only the prepared will survive past the first few weeks or months of such disasters.

  • Ben from Texas

    What about 911,it sure looked like people were in a panic when the towers started falling,they were running like hell fleeing for their lives,trying not to get killed by falling chunks of iron and concrete.Panic has to be experienced,it can't be observed from a distance.I panicked in 1974 one time when I started getting very low of air in my scuba tank while inspecting a ships hull that had a small leak in it..I panicked just for a few seconds,then realized that this ''fear'' would kill me if I didn't stop and ''think'' rational..I tried to calm myself and realized if I followed the weld on the bottom plates of stell they would lead me to the side of the ship and out of danger.Myt second dive I held onto a roap tiedto the side of the ship,I found the leak and stuffed some rags in it,then welders on the inside welded a stell cap over the hole..Remember if panic sets in,stop and think about how to solve your problem CALMLY..

  • Thor Sparre

    You are correct for local & regional events. However, events that involve the entire country such as a infrastructure failure is in a different class. Once folks can't get drinking water and/or feed their families loss of hope and panic rears it's head [Rule of three] and when you have loss of hope/panic, you start loosing the rule of law. There are too many folks in high density population areas that are dependent on their basic supplies being brought too them and are no longer self-sufficient. You also have too many folks in this country that feel nothing bad will ever happen to them and they are not prepared. If your experts think that won't happen then why does the government run continuity of government drills on a monthly basis and many harden underground facilities across the country. I served on a destroyer in the US Navy and we drilled every day on something; then when the bad stuff happened we knew what to do. How many folks in this country know what to do when you have a disaster when you have no Calvary coming over the hill to rescue them?

  • Ramona

    Thank you for them calm look at panick. I have been through three major hurricans. I have seen more good in people than bad in people. I do feel that if disaster lasted months or years people would turn to survival mode.

  • Bob

    I can still hear the bias in the responses somewhat that reactions are predictable. There seems to be agreement that predictably the Mad Max post apocalypse will drive people to very bad behavior.
    I disagree in part. Dramatic changes can shock people into inaction. Helplessness and hopelessness are just as likely to cause a give up resulting in death. There are many people who prefer death to violence and looting.
    Leadership can change a situation dramatically, also. The one example of my thesis that is famous is the 1900 hurricane in Galveston. It took many days to reach the island, and the first arrival was Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross.
    No one was leading when she arrived and the islanders were stunned into inaction! She got them off the ground and gave them tasks: removing bodies, erecting shelters, distributing the food she bought.
    There as no cannibalism or drinking of blood. The residents were in shock and slowly dying. Barton supplied needed food water and shelter, but leadership was even more important. It's not predictable.

  • Naomi

    I guess you all forgot about Katrina, the Rodney King riots around the world, the Freakfest in Atlanta and other cities.

  • Keith

    I was a firefighter in Miami during hurricane Andrew and witnessed the shock-like symptoms that many people had for the first couple of days right after the storm. There was also isolated looting in stores and residences by opportunists who felt they "deserved" the stuff. Neighbors did help each other initially while essential supplies lasted, but when they ran out, particularly ice and water, it was everyone for themselves. I believe the extreme stress level we were all under having lost so much materially and not having power or resources available, like we were so used to, sent some folks over the edge! Being prepared as much as possible is so important to surviving any disaster.

  • Anonymous

    This was the case when I was sent to Katrina. Initially, people were in shock and cooperative. I did also watch people attack each other over 2x4s at lowe's while pulling security. I think it is fair to say that it is totally unpredictable.

  • Raven

    I agree with much of your article, but I find some of it inaccurate, and some of it outdated.

    Please allow me to qualify my opinion. I grew up in EMS and SAR. I became an emergency medical tech just one month after my 16th birthday, over 25 years ago in PA. I went on to become a medic. I joined a search and rescue team and eventually specialized in high angle ropes, as a K9 handler, and a medic for PEMA, FEMA Task Force 1, and a regional squad in the Pocono Mountains, along with pulling street work in the Lehigh Valley. (I left after a traumatic injury ended my career...not that I would have anything to do with FEMA and DHS now) I currently live in rural Maine and stil teach survival skills.

    Most people do pull together after disaster rather than fall apart in mass panic as depicted in motion pictures. This is true. The media focuses on the "dirty laundry" to feed the public's insatiable appetite for gore, and tends to highlight negative rather than positive outcome. 1 bad incident is flashed across televisions and computer screens twenty times a day, and 15 good examples are ignored. Similar phenomenon can be seen with regard to other tragedies such as a terrorist attack or mass causality incident where many children die , people expect an outbreak of following suicides because of the grief. What actually happens it that survivors draw together in solidarity and group comfort.

    The same thing happens after disasters. I believe that is what your paper is trying to express. There is a problem with this, a problem I think you would notice yourself if you looked closer at your statistics. People are reacting less and less as a community over a time line. There is also a strong correlation between urban clusters and rural. And the type of disaster, and how said disaster affected mobility and ability to act and react.

    As America continues to grow, I am saddened to see that we continue to grow apart. I will not say that numbers do not lie, because anyone who took a class in Statistics knows how to make numbers lie, but reading given stats over time will show that communities pulled together more readily 100, 50 years ago than they did 25 and they pulled together 25 years ago more readily 25 years ago better than they do today. Just as your information about most looting being the result of civil unrest rather than need is correct. It was also almost universally correct that such rioters didn't attack their own neighborhoods until the past decade. Now it's almost the norm. Consider what happened in Ferguson. Now I am guilty of holding up one example against many, but I am going to use it to contradict the example of looting for civil rest attacking banks across town.

    After Hurricane Katrina, we pulled people out of water filled with dead bodies. We pulled them off of roof tops. Most were grateful to see us, but those people were stuck on those rooftops. It was an honor and a privlidge to help them. But we were also armed at times. We had to be. People were destroying what was left of the few supplies remaining in the markets. Not simply stealing...destroying!!! Animals know better than to destroy the only drinking water and food for miles. They were firing on the police and fire fighters (which BTW, seems to be a common game). They were helping nothing and no one, and they were not looking to get out nor find safety. They were simply making things worse and actively endangering our lives.

    While I applaud your efforts, and I certainly reject the paranoia I find in certain segments of the population...particularly those who possibly make up the largest percentage of your customer base...it would be a disservice to sugar coat things....our country is not the nation it was during WWI nor WWII. It's not even the nation it was after 9/11. Don't fail to think for a minute people act far worse than animals after disasters, natural and man made. I spent my life coming to their aid, and I saw them at their best and their worst. Their worst is pretty bad.

  • octavius

    About the looting thing, I was in cebu during the time when the typhoon Hainan (local Yolanda) struck leyte. it happened around Friday morning, and even if it did not pass my location, it was a strong one. however, comes the next day, we already got reports of looting. every single thing you mentioned here was part of a myth has happened there. I am a survivor of storms as i grew up in a pacific islands, i have weathere countless Hainans. however that singularity of what happened in Leyte is a bit unsettling. we cannot be too confident that these is just a myth, it does happen in real life(once you hear a report of people butchering their relatives so they can eat, you better prep). i agree, while some may not be as bad as holywood puts it, some do take the cake for being worse.

  • Altamisha Matthew
    Altamisha Matthew September 16, 2014 at 12:08 pm


    Let me say that I really enjoyed reading your article. Some I agree with and some I do not; but, I found it quite helpful. In many of the examples you provided, especially the fire in Kentucky that claimed 164 deaths, the ensuing panic occurs because of failure to adequately prepare. The organization should have adequately trained its staff to respond even when patrons do not take the alarm seriously. They should have also had enough employees in order to control the crowd. As a nurse with disaster training, I can say that the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the community to be prepared. That is, each business should have a disaster management plan that calls for the organization's reaction to any possible disaster whether that is a fire, tornado, or etc. Mass panic is far from the obvious reaction when the community has pulled together in order to respond quickly. Yes, looting might occur after a tornado or hurricane as it did with hurricane Katrina. However, you are missing the bigger picture. This region of the country was not prepared for a disaster of that magnitude. There were no plans for housing or dispersing resources to citizens. The people felt as though they were left to fend for themselves. Good does actually come out of these situations. People band together to build the community back up but the outcome often depends on the planning.

    Communities should understand where they may find shelter, the best way to help family members is to get to safety immediately. I keep an emergency bag in my vehicle so that I may react quickly. The first reaction of most is to survey the community for damage and to begin to look for survivors but this cannot be done in a sporadic manner. Panic is limited when people understand that there is a plan. I assure you that your emergency management agencies are more equipped to handle most situations.

  • Darlene


  • Cynthia

    None of my closest family (mom, sister, dtr.) are preparing, so I bought a seal/meal and am doing
    the simplest of meals, oatmeal, rice, beans and will rotate that stock here at home to keep the freshness ready at hand. That is all that I can do and if it does turn out that neighbors are needy, I certainly will not turn them away. My grandmother made sandwiches for the train hobos in the depression and WWII soldiers and I will try to do the same. She had a note on her front gate that said...sorry, no more food. God bless you.
    Yes, different times; no, never cease to be the person you were meant to be. I do have guns and ammo, for the evil that shows up with the good. I am putting up dog and cat food and chicken feed for my neighbors also. I hope we are years away and planning is something that is passed down through the generations. If all we have learned from history is to take care of one another, we have done a good thing.

  • Andrew

    I was on the northern eye wall of Hurricane Andrew when it came through South Florida. After the storm, I witnessed despair as people went into shock. That first night, I slept in the debris of what was once my home and cried myself to sleep as machine gun and pistol fire went off all around me. For 3 days, there was no order, no law and no compassion. Humans turn into animals when the camera is not rolling and authority is nowhere to be found. While there is good in people that know one another (family, neighbors, etc.) In mass, without order, people are not kind, supportive or nurturing. They reduce to two kinds of animal: 1 that is just trying to survive and is willing to fight to stay alive; or 2, predators that use the moment to get ahead by taking from others. Neither is kind or what you see on the TV reels. We as a species are not as civilized as you think.

  • Justin Case

    Sell all your frivolous stuff, buy food and guns and ammo - when you think you have enough guns and ammo, buy double that amount and then keep buying. Because if you don't have enough guns and ammo, if something happens, somebody with more guns and ammo will come take your guns and ammo so please get more so you have the upper hand. It's going to happen.

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