Some disasters are simply not survivable. But most are, and research on human behavior suggests that the difference between life and death often comes down to the simple—yet surprisingly difficult—
It was early, 9:00AM, and eerily dark in Poway, Calif., as 75-mph winds drove chaparral embers through the air and shook the bones of Frank Vaplon’s house. One ember lodged in his woodpile and set it ablaze. Most of his neighbors had evacuated, but Vaplon had decided to stay and fight the wildfire that was closing in on his property.
Geared up in a mail-order firefighter’s outfit–helmet, bunker coat, respirator, the whole thing–Vaplon began his assault by shooting a high-pressure stream of water at the flames, but it just blew back against him in a hot mist. “It was like pissing into the wind,” Vaplon says. “So I turned around and started spraying down the house.”
The Witch Creek fire was the fourth largest on record in California. A reported 1800 firefighters battled the blaze and several others nearby; more than 250,000 people in San Diego County were evacuated. Conventional wisdom says that when a wildfire is burning down your neighborhood, you shouldn’t stick around. And, for most homeowners, evacuation was certainly the smartest option. But Vaplon stayed and fought back against the fire. What did he know that everyone who followed the conventional wisdom didn’t?
“The last thing I want from my story is for people to risk their lives,” Vaplon says. “But I’d thought about protecting my home, and I felt comfortable with my decision to stay.” The day before the fire swept through his 2.5-acre spread, he woke up early to the distant smell of smoke. He immediately broke out 500 feet of fire hose and attached it to a standpipe hooked up to a 10,000-gallon water tank. “I started watering down everything that I could,” Vaplon says. “The roof, my lawn, everything.”
The former Hewlett-Packard engineer didn’t stop there. He raked up all the loose debris around his house, and then boarded up the attic vents where embers might get in. He checked the fuel for his three backup generators. And he put important papers in a steel box, which he loaded into his RV. He parked the vehicle facing out just in case he needed to bolt. “I had a plan to go if I had to go,” he says. “If for one minute I started to get scared, I would have left.”
The gear and setup were just part of Vaplon’s extensive preparation. Whether deliberately or not, he had organized his brain to deal with disaster by planning a detailed fire strategy.
“The brain is an engineering system,” says John Leach, a former Royal Air Force combat survival instructor who now works with the Norwegian military on survival training and research. “Like any engineering system, it has limits in terms of what it can process and how fast it can do so. We cope by taking in information about our environment, and then building a model of that environment. We don’t respond to our environment, but to the model of our environment.” If there’s no model, the brain tries to create one, but there’s not enough time for that during an emergency. Operating on an inadequate mental model, disaster victims often fail to take the actions needed to save their own lives.
Not Vaplon. As the firestorm approached, he stayed calm and clearheaded. He had done so much advance work that he had created a model for his brain to act on when disaster came. All his equipment would have been useless if he hadn’t thought through how to use it.
The Witch Creek blaze swept past in less than 2 minutes. Vaplon quickly put out the small fires on his property, then doused his neighbors’ fires. He saved one house, but another burned after embers set the garage on fire. “There was nothing I could do about that one,” he says. “When I got back to my house I heard these two loud thumps. Those were the gas tanks exploding.”
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The tornado siren sounded at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in western Iowa just before the power went out on June 11, 2008. Scout Leader Fred Ullrich, an IT manager at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, opened the door of the building where he and 65 Boy Scouts had taken shelter. “I was looking for lightning and listening for that freight train sound you’re supposed to hear with tornadoes, but there was nothing like that,” Ullrich says. “But something told me we were in deep trouble–I don’t know what it was. I yelled for the boys to get under the tables.” As the scouts dove for cover, the wind came up. Ullrich leaned into the door from the outside, trying to push it shut, but instead he was picked up and thrown from the building. Then the 150-mph wind simply blew the Boy Scout shelter apart. “I can only describe my actions in that moment as being totally futile,” Ullrich says. “There was absolutely nothing I could do.”
Once the tornado passed, Ullrich noticed he couldn’t hear out of one ear. He felt around and fished out a stone. All around him was chaos. Some scouts were pinned under a collapsed brick chimney; others were trapped by the debris of the wrecked structure. For a brief moment Ullrich was dazed. Then he went into autopilot rescue mode. “I don’t know how to describe it,” he says. “It was like my brain went away, and I went to a very businesslike place.” He circled what was left of the disintegrated shelter, directing the able-bodied to take care of the injured. And the scouts did just that–applying pressure to wounds, turning T-shirts into bandages and elevating the legs of those who were in shock. Ullrich used a 6-foot iron bar to pry up a wooden board and bricks that had fallen on one boy.
In a disaster roughly 10 percent of people panic, while 80 percent essentially do nothing. Unable to come to terms with what’s happening, they freeze. The remaining 10 percent jump into action. Ullrich was trained in CPR and first aid, skills that doubtless helped the scouts that day, but before any of that formal training would even matter, Ullrich needed a separate and equally important skill: to get hold of himself and get people organized.
According to Chris Hart, a former Navy psychologist and now professor at Texas Woman’s University, being able to set aside fear is what separates people like Ullrich from others. “Fear is a good thing,” Hart says. “You want to have it because it can motivate you to action. But if you become overwhelmed by it, then it’s debilitating.”
What’s worse, research shows that the greater the number of people who are involved in an emergency situation, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene–a phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. Ervin Staub, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, who has done extensive research on the subject, says that in group situations, there is a diffusion of responsibility; people look for cues from others before deciding how to act. “Just being aware of this tendency and saying `I am responsible’ can make a difference. People who believe that they are responsible for other people’s welfare help more.”
Ullrich didn’t know what he and his scouts were in for that day, but mental preparedness and responsibility are central to the Boy Scout philosophy. The night before the tornado, Ullrich had put the boys through a first-aid drill. When emergency responders arrived after the tornado, what they saw was devastating–four scouts were dead or mortally wounded. Scores were suffering from broken pelvises, dislocated shoulders, lacerations and punctured lungs. Yet, amazingly, the rescue crew also saw that Ullrich and the uninjured scouts were putting their training to work. They had organized an on-the-spot triage center, helping to prepare the most seriously injured for their journey to the hospital.
By teaching his scouts to leap into action, Ullrich skewed the 10-80-10 math of disaster. He saw the drill as part of his responsibility to care for the troop. “The point of it is to get these scouts to be the people who don’t sit around when something bad happens,” he says, “but to be the type of people who do something.”
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On Saturday, Nov. 18, 2007, Daryl Jané left his cottage on Bainbridge Island in Washington State to head for an overnight sky-watching event 190 miles southeast at Trout Lake. He had planned to be back the next day to watch a Seattle Seahawks game. Jané never made it to Trout Lake. Instead he became the prisoner of a tremendous late autumn snowstorm. Jané was driving on a widely used–at least in good conditions–forest service road as the snow began to pile up. He became stuck 35 miles from his destination when the tires of his ’93 Jeep Cherokee sank into deep snow.
In the car, Jané had a near-full gallon of water, some food for the evening, a Wal-Mart sleeping bag and a Seahawks jacket with a fleece liner. He was certain he’d be rescued the next day, but no one came. He knew he shouldn’t leave the shelter of his vehicle to look for help, so he stayed with the Jeep and, as the days passed, settled into a survival routine. He slept in fits and starts so he could keep brushing the snow off his door and the roof in case a search helicopter came looking for him. (In fact, the local sheriff had called off the search after the fifth day, convinced Jané was not in the area.)
After eight days, Jané was seriously dehydrated. He was literally buried in frozen water, but he knew that it would do him more harm than good. “I had read somewhere not to eat snow if you were stuck,” he says. He was correct: It lowers the core temperature of the body, which then must expend precious energy to keep warm. Yet his head ached, his teeth felt fuzzy, and his tongue and lips were cracked– he had to find water or die. Eventually, he wrote a goodbye note to his family and friends and set out with his empty gallon jug to search for water.
Jané struggled through the 5-foot-deep snow until he noticed a depression. He dug through it with a cup, and discovered water. He drank an entire gallon. “It was the greatest feeling,” he says, still recalling the first sip vividly. “I could feel that water going through my body. It was like I was the Tin Man being oiled.” Once he got back to his Jeep he put away his pen and goodbye note. The water he found kept him alive and gave him hope as the snow continued to fall day after day.
In the end, Jané was stuck for 14 days before a local snowmobile club found him. He had lost 10 pounds but had suffered from neither frostbite nor hypothermia.
Jané’s survival story is, of course, amazing. But is it miraculous? According to John Leach, the former RAF instructor turned survival psychologist, it shouldn’t be. “Unfortunately, people in his situation die all the time, but they don’t have to,” Leach says. “He didn’t have food, but that’s not a problem for two weeks–you can live without it. Fluid is the issue, but he found water.” What really saved Jané, Leach says, is that he adapted to his environment; he understood that he was in trouble and changed his behavior. “Being aware of your surroundings and recognizing the threats means your brain is working on solutions,” Leach says, “and that gives you an edge.” That awareness starts your brain modeling a plan to keep yourself alive and help in your own rescue, instead of remaining in denial about the problem or simply panicking.
Steve Leslie, a 20-year veteran of Washington State-based Olympic Mountain Rescue, has seen countless people get lost or stranded in the woods. He sees longterm wilderness survival as a challenge of maintenance. “Basically it’s housekeeping– your chances of survival go way up if you maintain a good shelter, find water and, if you have any food, parcel it out.“
Jané created a survival routine and stuck to it: He avoided desperate actions and stayed with his vehicle, kept the roof clear to increase the odds of being found and, most important, never gave up. By facing reality–he was stuck and might be there a long time–and adapting to it, Jané set himself up for the slow, disciplined work of long-term survival.
Last September, a 600-milewide hurricane named Ike
carved through the Caribbean with wind speeds of up to 145 mph before slamming into Texas near Houston. As a direct result of the storm, 48 people in Texas died.
But, according to a report by the National Hurricane Center, the aftermath proved to be deadlier than the storm itself. As many as 64 post-storm deaths occurred in Texas because of factors such as carbon monoxide poisoning and electrocution. More than 1 million Texans were left without power. Municipal water systems were overwhelmed, and clean water was the next to go. Enormous lines formed at FEMA food centers, grocery stores and gas stations–which had no electricity to pump what little gas was left. That first weekend after Ike, some 37,000 Texans were holed up in shelters that ran short of food and water within 24 hours. The next few weeks brought countless scores of injuries from clearing debris.
While many in the area were awaiting assistance, Mark Vorderbruggen and several of his neighbors in the Houston suburb of Spring were already busy cleaning up their neighborhood. The crew had organized before the storm by gathering all the two-way Family Radio Service walkie-talkies they could find and then distributing them among 14 occupied houses. They had already taken a quick inventory of residents with generators, chain saws and first-aid skills (one neighbor was a retired Army medic). The day before Ike hit, Vorderbruggen went door to door with four or five guys from the neighborhood, serving as an impromptu pickup crew, clearing yards of furniture, tools and anything else that might turn into a deadly missile in hurricane-force winds.
Thanks to his preparations, Vorderbruggen’s house survived largely intact. But there was still plenty of debris to clean up in the neighborhood. “Almost every leaf and every pine needle on every tree was stripped off,” he says. “There was an incredible amount of raking to be done.” He and his neighbors all pitched in to clean up every yard and sidewalk.
In times of danger, many people can retreat into a defensive crouch, but “every man for himself” is a terrible strategy for post-disaster situations. Psychologists use the term “reciprocal altruism” to describe what happens when people overcome their tendency toward selfishness and work together. “We tend to extend help to others,” says psychologist Andrew Shatté, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of resilience, “on the understanding that some `other’ will expend a few resources to save us.” By working together, groups reduce the danger and stress to individuals. “Once their basic survival needs are met,” says Shatté, “people like Vorderbruggen instinctively reach out to help the community. They are more resilient and happier with their lives for doing so.”
In fact, for Vorderbruggen and his neighbors, the aftermath of Ike was less like a disaster and more like a barbecue. The area was without power for five days, but the neighbors conserved resources by eating meals together at a different house each night to ensure that no food was spoiled. “We cooked on the grill, and I ran a small light off a battery-powered electric inverter,” Vorderbruggen says. “I got to walk around in Hawaiian shirts and swim shorts for nearly a week. Cooking outside, clearing debris. It was actually kind of fun–for me.”
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