Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Crowd resilience and Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy is now abating in its ferocity after battering the East Coast of the US, and the clear-up is now beginning.  While around 40 people were killed in the US, and over 70 in the Carribbean, it seems that it could have been much worse, given how much hype there was in the media about the scale of this storm. The emergency response seems to have been fairly efficient, with most people heeding the warning to evacuate the areas at risk of flooding and storm damage, leaving them populated mainly by journalists and first responders. To me, this shows how people can act upon warnings about impending danger, and further undermines the out-dated (and totally false) notion that people will 'panic' if they become aware of a threat. If information is provided in a way that people can act to remove themselves and their families from danger, they will usually do so. A very good example of this is the advice given by the Mayor of New Orleans as Hurricane Gustave approachd the city in August 2008 (the first big one after Katrina), which resulted in a safe and efficient evacuation with no mass panic;
You need to be scared, you need to be concerned, you need to get your butts moving out of New Orleans now! … We are ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city of New Orleans starting in the morning at 8am on the West Bank… we give you four hours to evacuate’
 (Ray Negin, Mayor of New Orleans. 31st August 2008)

The UK media is now focusing on the aftermath in New York, and how residents will cope with  power cuts, clearance of debris etc. However, I have detected a worrying undercurrent in some of the coverage where the media is speculating about looting in New York (as I write this on 31/10/12, I have seen no reports of looting yet). This reminds me of some awful media coverage after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the immediate aftermath of the flooding, there were reports of mass looting, gang-rapes, and murders in New Orleans. However, this was later shown to be wildly exaggerated and the crime rate in the period after Katrina actually dropped, forcing the local Police chief to resign when the scale of exaggeration became clear. When asked about possible lawlessness' on the BBC's Newsnight, 30/10/12, Ray Negin replied that after Katrina, 'looting' began in New Orleans because there were large numbers of people in an urban area with no access to supplies, and they were doing it to survive because they felt they had been abandoned by the authorities. Vorhees et al (2007) showed how there was often a racial bias in how this was reported in the media, and the coverage often depended upon the ethnicity of the people doing it (white people were 'gathering essential supplies', and African Americans were 'looting'). We shall see how coverage of this story develops, but I do hope it doesn't fall back into the age-old myth that when the 'forces of law and order' are not present after emergencies, people retreat into a savage, uncivilised state. Studies of over a century of mass emergencies in the US (Solnit, 2009) have shown that people and communties can be remarkably resilient in their aftermath, and if the authorities respond  in a way that treats the situation as a potential public order problem (such as allowing the military to take over the emergency response), this can create more problems than previously existed and hinder the spontaneous resilience that emerges.  

Solnit, R. (2008). A Paradise built in Hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Viking, New York, US.

Tierney, K., Bevc, C, & Kuligowski, E. (2006). Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media frames and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 57-81.

Voorhees, C.W., Vick, J. & Perkins D.D. (2007). ‘Came Hell and High Water’: The Intersection of Hurricane Katrina, the News Media, Race and Poverty. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 17: 415–429.

Friday, 19 October 2012

'sheer panic' at Glasgow airport?

The reporting of an emergency evacuation of an aircraft at Glasgow airport by the BBC today, illustrates quite well how I think the media can sensationalise such incidents. The  story begins with the headline;
'Glasgow Airport: Passenger tells of panic'

The first sentence then continues with;
'Passengers on an Alicante-bound plane from Glasgow Airport have described "sheer panic" after "swirling" smoke in the cabin forced an emergency stop.'

A later quote from a survivor who evacuated with his wife and young daughters, continues in this vein;
"There was panic, people started running and I shouted 'slow down', and then the pilot shouted 'get out, get out'. It was just sheer panic, something no-one would want to go through again."

So, this seems to be the usual narrative of 'panic, chaos, mayhem' etc to describe people's behaviour in emergencies. However, later quotes that don't get such attention tell a different story to me. For instance a female survivor reports that;
"Although it was a horrific situation there was no panic and everyone remained calm," 

A male survivor who was interviewed at length by local radio is asked by the journalist ;
'it must have been very scary?' 

Unfortunately he doesn't go along with this rather loaded question, and continues by saying that there was no panic, and  describes in some detail how people remained calm and orderly. He even finishes by saying that he'd get straight back on a plane!

I think this shows quite well, how different narratives can emerge from disasters, and the descriptions that journalists often seek of 'panicking/stampeding' victims isn't always backed up by evidence, but that doesn't stop them trying to portray emergencies in this way. It reminds me of when I was on holiday in Tunisia during the 2011 revolution that began the Arab Spring. While I was out there, I did some interviews with the media about the situation, including one for Radio 5, where I was on live with another English tourist in a different resort who had barricaded himself and his family into their hotel room. My account of events (that we were not feeling threatened at all by what was going on and local Tunisians were hospitable & protective towards us) was not considered as newsworthy as 'terrified UK tourists need rescuing from a foreign country', and so received much less attention. My experiences in Tunisia inspired me to begin this blog and attempt in my own way to redress the balance of what I saw (and still do) as a deeply pathologising discourse of crowd behaviour in society today that is not backed up by evidence of how crowds actually behave.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Hillsborough enquiries announced

It was reported today that there will be a far-reaching enquiry into alleged Police misconduct during and after the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster as a result of the findings published by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report in September 2012. Deborah Glass, from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), announced what would undoubtedly be the biggest ever enquiry carried out into possible misconduct by the police  in the UK. Up to three Police forces could now be investigated for not only the initally woeful crowd mismanagement that caused the disaster, but also how attempts were made to cover up failings on the day by the police and other agencies, and how there were 'attempts to distort the truth' (which led to false implications that fans were somehow responsible for the tragedy). It also looks increasingly likely that there may be an application for new inquests into how the victims died, as their families were never happy with the original verdicts, especially after the HIP report revealed that up to 41 of the 96 victims had the 'potential to survive', but insufficent attempts were made to revive them.

This announcement is clearly good news for the survivors and families, and Margaret Aspinall (mother of one of the victims- James Aspinall) was reported as saying,  "We've had the truth. This is the start of the justice". This may be a long process, but hopefully it will result in the justice that has been denied the victims and their families for so long. I also hope that this enquiry will also look into the deeply pathological and pervasive view of football crowds that I believe contributed to a deep culture of distrust between football fans and the police. This culture created an environment in which crowd safety at football matches took secondary importance to crowd control, which was at least in part responsible for the tragedy.  In my last blog entry, I looked at how such distrust of crowds was behind crowd management strategies at Hillsborough, and I think exploring how these approaches informed tactics that contributed to the disaster could help educate those involved in crowd safety management to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again