Saturday, November 8, 2014

Learning from the Storm

 On March 21st, 1952, a cluster of tornadoes struck the Mississippi valley. The damage stretched across nine states; 231 people died and 1,829 were injured. In White County, Arkansas, a pair of cyclones leveled the town of Judsonia, destroyed 650 buildings, and killed 46 people.[Qu5]

Thirteen days later, as the townsfolk were still picking through the wreckage, twenty-six scientists arrived in Judsonia from Chicago. Instead of first aid kits and blankets, they carried tape recorders and notebooks. They fanned out across White County, picked a representative cross-section of homes, and asked their inhabitants if they could interview them.

To their own surprise, most of the people they asked said yes.

Over the next two weeks, working twelve hour days, they interviewed 423 people in Judsonia and the surrounding towns. When did they realize the tornado was approaching? Did they heed warning signs? How did they react when they realized what was happening? Did they panic, did they weep, did they pray, how did they act after the storm passed, did they have nightmares, headaches, trouble concentrating – an average of an hour and a half with each man or woman. Then, back in Chicago, they coded the results on to punch cards and fed them into a computer.[Qu5][NORC]

These scientists – mostly graduate students in sociology – worked for the National Opinion Research Center, or NORC. From 1950 to 1954 NORC researched the behavior of people in disasters under a contract from the Army Chemical Command (ACC). The Army knew that, in the next world war, the United States would not be spared attack. Army planners worried about panicked, screaming hordes clogging evacuation routes, frenzied looters smashing shop windows, the breakdown of social order in the chaos of nuclear war.

Storm, earthquake, fire, and flood were the closest analogues to nuclear war available in the United States. If the military were to effectively protect the public in World War III, they needed to know how the public would behave. Therefore, they paid NORC $50,000 to go into disaster zones and find out.[Qu][Qu5]

The project was born from the 1948 Donora, Pennsylvania temperature inversion. In a temperature inversion, hot air forms a layer above cold air, trapping the cold air near the surface. Pollution from nearby metalworks was trapped along with the cold air over Donora, forming a thick, choking, poisonous smog that turned noon dark as night. Twenty people died and 7,000 were sickened before rain brought clean air back into the town.

The Army Chemical Command, being in the poison gas business, was naturally interested in the event. And they noticed something unusual: many people in the area who had not actually been exposed to the smog showed symptoms of it, apparently a sort of psychosomatic poisoning.

The ACC asked NORC to study Donora to measure and analyze the effect. However, the NORC leadership felt that, by the time a research team could be gathered and trained, too much time would have passed to collect good data. Instead, they proposed setting up a field team to rapidly respond to new disasters, who would go into the damaged areas to interview the victims. The ACC agreed to the proposal: “empirical study of peacetime disasters will yield knowledge applicable to the understanding and control, not only of peacetime disasters, but also of those which may be anticipated in the event of another war.” This was not the first sociological study of a disaster, but previous efforts had been isolated and singular, a thesis here, a monograph there. The NORC effort would be a sustained, on-going research program, examining numerous events and looking for common features across a wide range of events.[Qu][Kn][NORC]

Charles Fritz, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, was one of the leaders of the NORC research effort. Fritz had trained as a photographer and worked on the Strategic Bombing Survey after World War II. The survey attempted to quantify the physical, economic, and social impact of the massive Allied air campaign against Germany and Japan, including how the raids effected civilian morale. They discovered that morale tended paradoxically to increase under heavy bombing. But, politically, the survey was supposed to justify the doctrine of strategic bombing, and therefore the establishment of an independent Air Force – and Fritz noticed that the military officers writing the survey's conclusions omitted the sociologists' results, asserting that strategic bombing could win wars by breaking civilian morale. While the military may not have been interested, Fritz was, and after leaving the survey he entered the University of Chicago's Ph.D. program in sociology. While at Chicago he joined the NORC project, leading the newborn field team.

Fritz and his team began with practice interviews around Chicago, covering porch collapses and other small incidents. Fritz later recalled that “a lot of people we talked to thought this was ridiculous... there was a feeling that particularly disaster-struck populations, one they would be so preoccupied with their problems or they would be so antagonistic to the idea of your coming in to exploit them, get information from them when actually you ought to be helping them in some way. But here you are a scientist coming in to get information rather than to provide any kind of assistance.” But, in fact, almost everyone they spoke to agreed to be interviewed.[Kn][Qu6]

By 1951, the NORC field team was ready. On September 15th, a plane crashed into a crowd of spectators during an airshow at Flagler, Colorado, killing 20 people. The NORC field team was there three days later, interviewing the survivors.[NORC]

Figure 1: Unidentified DRC Field Researcher in Hobart, Tasmania in 1967, Following a Forest Fire[DRC2]
(Used with Permission)

From July 1951 through August 1952, the NORC team criss-crossed the country, landing everywhere something horrible had happened. They studied an earthquake in California, airplane crashes in Colorado and New Jersey, gas explosions in New York, a factory explosion in Minnesota, a coal mine disaster in Illinois, a carbon monoxide poisoning in Chicago, and more. Altogether, they interviewed almost a thousand people. The White County tornado study was the crowning jewel of the program, producing a vast trove of data, to this day still one of the most complete, thorough analyses of a single disaster ever produced.[Qu][FM]

What they learned surprised them.

It was common knowledge that, in a disaster, people lose their heads, they panic and flee mindlessly, often putting themselves in greater danger than if they had stayed put. In fact, “in the face of danger, most people do not lose self-control and run in panic, break down in hysterics, or 'freeze' on the spot. Most individuals in a crisis situation actively attempt to cope with it... Individuals may be greatly afraid, their behavior may be very highly anxiety-motivated, but they will act – alone and with others – to control the situation they see themselves faced with.”[NORC]

It was common knowledge that, in a disaster, looting inevitably breaks out, that military force is necessary to prevent depredation and chaos. In fact, while almost everyone had heard of someone being looted, actual instances of looting were rare. In the White County tornado study, there were many instances of onlookers stealing small items as souvenirs, but only two cases of actual looting for personal gain (a cash register and a grand piano).[NORC]

It was common knowledge that, in a disaster, only trained first responders will act to rescue the trapped and the injured, while the bulk of the populace waits apathetically for help. In fact, after the tornadoes hit Judsonia, a quarter of the population – more than half of the town's adult male survivors – began working to free people trapped in rubble and care for the wounded hours before outside help arrived.[FM][NORC]

Figure 2: Unidentified DRC Field Researcher in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966, Following a Tornado[DRC2]
(Used with Permission)

As Quarantelli, one of the NORC researchers, put it, they quickly “learned the basic principle that many of the central beliefs about disasters held by planners, operational responders, and even researchers were mostly mythological.”[Qu3] The ACC contract was premised on faulty assumptions. In disasters, keeping order is not the problem. The problem is coordination – there were never shortages of willing volunteers for whatever tasks needed doing, but people generally did not know what was needed. Individuals had no sense of the larger situation, and simply reacted to what they saw around them. Often they initially didn't even realize that the disaster extended beyond their own house or their own block. The only major problem of control was people outside the disaster zone rushing into the effected area to find relatives, help the wounded, or simply sightsee, clogging roads and preventing emergency vehicles from passing.[NORC]

NORC's contract with the ACC ended in 1954. But by this point there was already another organization working in the area. In 1952, the Army, Navy, and Air Force Medical Services asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to fund a program of disaster research, to continue NORC's work. Since funding was forthcoming, the NAS was willing, and they established a Committee on Disaster Studies, later renamed the Disaster Research Group. Charles Fritz and Harry Williams, another sociologist, were picked to head the project – Fritz was actually the first sociologist to work full-time for the NAS.[Qu9] The committee published a series of titles on disaster research and supported continued field studies of disasters, including the first study outside the United States, on a flood in Holland in 1953.[Qu][FEMA]

Fritz and Williams left the Disaster Research Group in 1959, and the Group shut down in 1962. But the baton was quickly picked up at Ohio State University, where Enrico Quarantelli had landed after graduating from Chicago.

Quarantelli temporarily left the disaster research field after finishing his Master's degree, but stayed in touch with Fritz. In 1961, Russell Dynes and Eugene Haas, two other OSU sociologists, approached him. They were putting together a proposal to fund more field research, had heard of his involvement with the NORC study, and wanted him to join their project, which Quarantelli agreed to. Besides field research, they also asked for money to conduct laboratory simulations studies, which were very trendy in social science in the early '60s . The three asked the National Science Foundation for $50,000 over eighteen months for the project.

Figure 3: From Left to Right: Steven R. Tripp, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Russell R. Dynes, at a Conference in 1968[DRC2]
(Used with Permission)

Somehow – they never did learn how – their request got into the hands of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD). Before they had even received the rejection notice from the National Science Foundation, they got a call from an official of the OCD, who invited them to come to Washington to meet with a group from civil defense and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. Jim Kerr, one of the OCD officers, suggested that they would be more interested in supporting an entire center to study disasters rather than just a series of field studies. He suggested $200,000 per year as a starting budget, with a five-year initial contract. The Air Force was more interested in the laboratory simulations studies, and indicated they would be willing to chip in as well. The three sociologists quickly agreed, and the Disaster Research Center (DRC) was inaugurated in the fall of 1963.[Kn][Qu][Qu4]

The DRC would be the primary center of disaster research for the next twenty years. Haas ran the simulations lab, while Quarantelli and Dynes focused on field studies. The government, despite paying for the Center, gave them considerable freedom to pursue their own interests; according to Quarantelli, there “was very little effort made to direct what should be studied and/or how it should be studied.”[Qu]

Quarantelli, Dynes, and Haas used this freedom to shift the focus of disaster research away from individual reactions, the focus of earlier research with its emphasis on panic and hysteria, towards how first responders planned for and coped with disasters.[QDW] DRC field researchers – like NORC, mostly sociology graduate students – were required to keep a go bag ready at all times and to head for the airport on a moment's notice.[Qu7] They would fly to disasters still in progress and attach themselves as observers to emergency command staffs – first responders sometimes even asked them for advice.[Kn] Haas, back at the university, had volunteers perform various tasks to measure how their behavior changed under stress, culminating in a simulation of a plane crash for a group of police dispatchers.[DRC] The simulation work ended in the late '60s after the Air Force lost interest and Haas left Ohio State, but the field studies continued, expanding into studying civil unrest during the turbulent years of the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, Quarantelli and his coworkers eventually realized that the reason their sponsors allowed them so much freedom was because most of them weren't paying attention. Quarantelli said they “learned later... [OCD and Air Force] officials saw the proposal as something... to show they were doing something to meet the new threat to American society.”[Kn] “Sponsored research, at least in the early days, was primarily commissioned at the highest levels of the agencies for reasons other than seeking answers to practical problems... Disaster research was initiated (and the initiation came from the agencies and not social scientists) because of internal bureaucratic pressure for agencies to be current with the post World War II phenomena of social science research being on the agenda of many government groups.”[Qu]

An OCD-sponsored study of local civil defense offices was a prime example. The DRC interviewed a number of officials at these offices, and found that most of them were not particularly interested in preparing for a nuclear war. They were spending their time preparing for natural disasters and industrial accidents, with perhaps some work on fallout shelters as a sideline. Quarantelli and Dynes told their OCD sponsors that they needed to start working on smaller-scale disasters as well if they wanted to gain the local offices' cooperation in preparing for a nuclear conflict. But the OCD wasn't interested – their policy was that they were exclusively concerned with nuclear war, and that policy was not going to change just because it wasn't working, at least not yet.[Qu6]

But, while the OCD may not have been paying attention, others were. Information from disaster research began to appear in textbooks to train first responders. In the 1970s, sociologists outside the DRC started to take an interest – a sometimes very critical interest – in the new field. The DRC, now located at the University of Delaware, remains a key center of the field, and is still funded by the OCD's descendant, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.[Qu8][FEMA]

Images thanks to the Disaster Research Center.   Previously published in the Journal of Civil Defense, the magazine of The American Civil Defense Association.

Works Cited:

[DRC]: The Disaster Research Center Simulation Studies of Organizational Behavior Under Stress. Disaster Research Center, 1967. Miscellaneous Report #6.
[DRC2]: Personal communication, Disaster Research Center.
[FEMA]: The Social Dimensions of Disasters: Instructor Guide. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
[FM]: Fritz, Charles E., and Marks, Eli S. “The NORC Studies of Human Behavior in Disaster.” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 10 No. 3 (1954), pp. 26-41.
[Fr]: Fritz, Charles E. “Disaster.” Contemporary Social Problems. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.
[Fr2]: Fritz, Charles E. “Disasters.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. MacMillan, 1968. Vol. 4, pp. 202-207.
[Kn]: Knowles, Scott Gabriel. The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
[Kr]: Kreps, Gary A. “The Worth of the NAS-NRC (1952-63) and DRC (1963-present) Studies of Individual and Social Response to Disasters.” Social Science and Natural Hazards. Abt Books, 1981. pp. 91-121.
[QDW]: Quarantelli, E. L., Dynes, R. R., and Wenger, D. E. “The Disaster Research Center: Its History and Activities.” Disaster Research Center, 1986. Miscellaneous Report #35.
[Qu]: Quarantelli, E. L. “Disaster Studies: An Analysis of the Social Historical Factors Affecting the Development of Research in the Area.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters
[Qu2]: Quarantelli, E. L. “Study and Research in the United States.” Proceedings of Organizational and Community Responses to Disasters. pp. 17-26.
[Qu3]: Quarantelli, E. L. “Commentary on The Worth of the NAS-NRC (1952-63) and DRC (1963-present) Studies of Individual and Social Response to Disasters.” Social Science and Natural Hazards. Abt Books, 1981. pp. 122-135.
[Qu4]: Quarantelli, E. L. “The Early History of the Disaster Research Center.”
[Qu5]: Quarantelli, E. L. “The NORC Research on the Arkansas Tornado: A Fountainhead Study.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, Vol. 6 No. 3 (November 1988), pp. 283-310.
[Qu6]: Interview with E. L. Quarantelli. The First 72 Hours: A Community Approach to Disaster Preparedness. iUniverse, 2004. pp. 321-339.
[Qu7]: Quarantelli, E. L. “The Disaster Research Center (DRC) Field Studies of Organized Behavior in the Crisis Time Period of Disasters.” Methods of Disaster Research.   pp. 94-117.
[Qu8]: Quarantelli, E. L. “Disaster Research.” Encyclopedia of Sociology. pp. 681-688.
[Qu9]: Quarantelli, E. L. “Disaster Studies: The Consequences of the Historical Use of a Sociological Approach in the Development of Research.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, Vol. 12 No. 1 (March 1994), pp. 25-49.

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