Amanda Ripley

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The Wisdom of Survivors

29th Jul 2008 posted in Disaster Behavior

Check out this NPR Talk of the Nation segment on the book from earlier today. The listener call-ins included Diane, who survived Katrina on a rooftop in New Orleans; Gary, who survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California; Upton, who lived through the catastrophic break up of United flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa; and Nina, who clung to a cement bench in Kalamazoo, MI, during the 1980 tornado.

Think of the wisdom contained in that collection of people. Here’s the enduring mystery: Why aren’t Diane and Gary and the rest of them up on the stage at the multi-million dollar homeland security conferences and emergency preparedness expos that happen every year? Why don’t we hear from them? Why are we spending billions of federal dollars on haz-mat suits for emergency responders—and virtually nothing on collecting, analyzing and sharing the remarkable memories of regular people with extraordinary information?

I have studied the behavior of people in disasters for seven years now, and I still heard things from these people that I did not know before. Since the show aired a few hours ago, the Talk of the Nation Blog has already collected a gallery of other stories from still other people. The kind of people—neighbors, rush-hour commuters and office workers—who will always be first on the scene in any disaster, without gear or credentials or official acronyms after their names.