Key conclusions from disaster research: case studies in tenacity

By Thomas E. Drabek, Ph.D.

Tenacity. While varied definitions can be found, this term highlights an important lesson I learned years ago from several local emergency managers.  They had visions of what they wanted their agencies to become.  Despite setbacks and delays, and some refinements in their visions over the years, they walked the walk.  I never will forget my sense of humility and appreciation as I slowly obtained a glimpse of what they were up against.

So too, my recent book—The Human Side of Disaster—is a case study in tenacity.  This book (Drabek 2010) had its origins in a course, I first offered in 1974!  During the next thirty years at the University of Denver, “Community Response to Natural Disasters” was offered annually.  Students were encouraged to read a variety of textbooks that supplemented my lectures. Among these were summaries prepared by Mike Lindell and Ron Perry (1992) and Hank Fischer (1998).  In addition, I provided reprints of a few of my journal articles (e.g., Drabek 2000; Drabek 2005) and placed some books on library reserve for special assignments (e.g., Rodriguez et al. 2006; Drabek 1986).  A disaster case study, like the excellent analysis of Hurricane Andrew completed by a team from Florida International University (Peacock et al. 1997), rounded out the core required readings.  But I never felt like I had the best text to give undergraduate students an overview of the sociological research literature on disaster responses.  New grant proposals, disaster field work, university administrative chores, classroom responsibilities, final research project reports, and other obligations took my eye off the ball every time I started to write a book for this class.

I retired from the University in June, 2004.  Three years later, faculty leaves and hiring delays caused some holes in the teaching schedule.  I was invited to return to the classroom.  But this time I decided to write the book I always had wanted.  So, with my wife’s assistance, I prepared the first draft of The Human Side of Disaster.  Photocopies were sold to students for the reproduction cost.  I repeated the course the next year (2008), and kept accumulating ideas for updates and revisions.  A chance meeting during the 11th Annual FEMA Higher Education Conference resulted in a contract with CRC Press.  Again, aided by my wife’s sharp editorial eye, I pressed harder to achieve my goal—summarize key social science research findings in a manner that was readable, yet intellectually sound and evidence based.

Disaster events are inherently interesting.  So I decided to introduce my reader’s to some people who were like the hundreds I had interviewed during my many field studies. Thus, the first chapter is comprised of four fictional short stories that are rooted in real events.  These provided my students with a set of shared experiences that added much meaning to specific research findings and core conclusions that followed.

We know, for example, that when people receive a disaster warning they don’t stop what they are doing and immediately flee in panic. Rather, if they do anything, they will try to confirm the information.  But the social pathways of message confirmation are many and produce different results.  Also, there are important pattern variations.  Older people, for example, are less likely to get the message in the first place and will seek confirmation without trying to text or twitter.  Not all, of course, but most.

If convinced to leave their homes, most will seek refuge with extended family or friends.  And they will stay together except under specific circumstances.  In the days after impact, many will be aided by relatives and friends.  And frequently, before this aid is received, they—the survivors—will help others whom they encounter.  Catastrophic events impacting vulnerable populations—think Hurricane Katrina—produce important pattern variations.  So these conclusions about “typical” response patterns have to be qualified.  We are just beginning to get a sense of the limits of generalization as more comparative studies are done.  We know we have exceptional cases regarding many conclusions, but exactly what defines these awaits further study.

Organized-disorganization best characterizes the mass assault of emergency government, private sector organizations and a wide variety of volunteers.  Executives in such agencies frequently discover that cooperation runs high.  It is greater than most have ever experienced, at least since their last brush with disaster.  Yet, they often sense limited multiagency coordination.  Why this happens when everyone means so well usually remains a mystery.  Through the use of social maps, my book helps readers solve this mystery.

Depending on the scope of impact, and other event characteristics, the “bitch phase” of human responses emerges as initial recovery actions begin.  For some disaster survivors, the bureaucratic nightmares they now confront are as traumatizing as the initial event.  Research tells us that years afterwards, most disaster victims—but not all—bounce back.  Most sense changes, however.  Somehow material possessions just don’t seem as important as they once were.  Family and friendship relations are of much greater value.  When more vulnerable populations—think Katrina or Haiti—comprise much of the impacted population, these results are less true.  Resilience is compromised by poverty.  Tenacity, like choice, is constrained for those crushed by oppression, regardless of the source or form.

Emergency managers are aspiring towards new levels of professionalism.  Those who understand the many pathways through which community resilience can be increased and vulnerabilities reduced, will best serve their constituents.  But unless they push to understand and implement a new vision, they will fail.

What are the key elements of this new vision?  First, and foremost, a far more strategic view of the profession must be embraced.  Emergency management cannot be limited to the implementation of narrowly defined bureaucratic procedures.  Rather, the vision must start with an understanding of why disasters should be conceptualized as nonroutine social problems.

From this perspective, victims cannot be blamed for their plight.  Nor can response protocols be the major focus of emergency managers.   Rather the root causes of disasters, including the social processes that produce differential distributions of risk, must guide new public policy approaches to enhance risk reduction and increase community resiliency.  As with any other social problem, societal elite greatly influence the emergency management policy agenda, either directly or indirectly.  Hence, the proposed new paradigm recognizes such influence and the resulting barriers that frequently neutralize efforts to bring about required reforms that better reflect such community values as equity and justice.

Without such structural reforms, the profession can only apply one Band-Aid after another, rather than addressing the root causes of future disasters.  The vision is clear, but the professional leadership, political will, and tenacity requirements remain problematic. These are the key challenges that await the energies and talents of those within this profession who will move it forward. Those who are less dedicated will continue to simply “piss in the ocean.”

And as they do, many disaster survivors will in fact be helped through their efforts.  That’s the good news, and it should not be forgotten or ridiculed.  Helping even one person or saving even one life, is commendable.  But members of this profession should aim higher.  And that will require far more insight and awareness of the root causes of disasters and the systemic changes required.


Drabek, Thomas E.  2010.  The Human Side of Disaster.  Boca Raton, Florida:  CRC Press.

Drabek, Thomas E.  2005.  “Don’t Blame the Victims.”  Journal of Emergency Management 3 (Nov./Dec):19-23.

Drabek, Thomas E.  2000.  “Disaster Evacuations:  Tourist-business Managers Rarely Act as Customers Expect.”  Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Management Quarterly 41:48-57.

Drabek, Thomas E.  1986.  Human System Response to Disaster.  New York:  Springer-Verlag.

Fischer, Henry W. III.  1998.  Response to Disaster:  Fact Versus Fiction and Its Perpetuation—The Sociology of Disaster.  Lanham, Maryland:  University Press of America, Inc.

Lindell, Michael K. and Ronald W. Perry.  1992.  Behavioral Foundations of Community Emergency Planning.  Washington, D.C.:  Hemisphere.

Peacock, Walter Gillis, Betty Hearn Morrow and Hugh Gladwin (eds.).  1997.  Hurricane Andrew:  Ethnicity Gender and the Sociology of Disasters.  London:  Rutledge.

Rodríguez, Havidán, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Russell R. Dynes.  2006.  Handbook of Disaster Research.  New York:  Springer.