North America’s strongest recorded earthquake struck just off the Alaskan coast at 5:36 p.m., on March 27, 1964. The shaking from the magnitude 9.2 quake lasted an unimaginable four and a half minutes. The tectonic forces reshaped Alaska’s coastline and triggered tsunamis that wiped out villages and claimed lives as far south as California. Anchorage, only 75 miles from the epicenter, was devastated. Home to 100,000, it was the state’s only large city, and had recently had a construction boom. The newest buildings turned out to be among the most vulnerable to collapse.
The sun set that night on a shattered city. Thousands were homeless. An entire neighborhood of stately homes had tumbled down a bluff as the soil beneath it turned to slurry. Downtown, the brand-new J.C. Penney department store was still collapsing in stages. Fourth Avenue, the city’s slightly seedy entertainment district, was ruptured down the middle. The bars and pawnshops on one side of the street had been plunged into a pit, as if by a vengeful god.
Almost as soon as the shaking stopped, city officials began worrying about how the populace would respond. With every shop window broken, would looters ransack the local merchants? Would citizens panic at the sight of the dead or wounded? Police quickly deputized a group of volunteers—some of them freshly emerged from those Fourth Avenue bars—as ad hoc officers. The men put on armbands with the word police emblazoned in lipstick—a few were even issued firearms—and off they went to protect the city from the inevitable post-disaster crime wave.
The Anchorage officials weren’t being unusually paranoid. At the time, most experts believed any major disaster would cause “a mass outbreak of hysterical neurosis among the civilian population,” as social scientist Richard M. Titmuss had put it some years earlier. Shocked by carnage and desperate for food and shelter, people would “behave like frightened and unsatisfied children.” Only firm control by powerful authorities could keep the lid on such dangerous situations.
Countless counterexamples, such as the quietly determined way Londoners responded to German air attacks in World War II, did little to change this perception. Fear of public panic remains common today. Disaster literature bulges with examples—from Hurricane Katrina, to the 2011 Japan tsunami, to the current coronavirus pandemic—in which officials suppressed information, or passed along misinformation, out of concern over an unruly populace.
Anchorage quickly became a kind of open-air laboratory for testing this public-panic hypothesis. Within 36 hours, a team of scientists arrived to study, not the earthquake itself, but how the local citizens responded to it. Expecting chaos, the sociologists were puzzled to find the residents calmly, almost cheerfully, pitching in to help. Writer Jon Mooallem ably tells this story in his new book, This is Chance! The Shaking of an All-American City, a Voice That Held It All Together. Today, as governments and individuals alike struggle with the pandemic, Mooallem’s book is a helpful reminder that not all solutions need to be implemented by our highest authorities. Ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions—if we trust them.
The calm center of Mooallem’s tale is TV and radio announcer Genie Chance. At 36, Chance was already a minor celebrity in Alaska. The earthquake caught her in her car, running a downtown errand with her son Wins. Together they watched as chunks of the J.C. Penney façade crashed to the street. She rushed Wins home, where he joined her two younger children. Leaving all three in the care of a neighbor—and trusting her husband would be home soon—Chance then hurried back downtown. She needed to shoot pictures for the evening broadcast.
She saw a mangled body in the rubble. Cars were buried in debris. One station wagon had been crushed almost flat by a concrete slab; Chance could hear a woman’s voice coming from inside. A crowd of people was trying to save her, clawing at the slab. Then a man stepped forward to organize the effort. Somehow, two tow trucks were located; they were able to split the slab partially in two. Another man climbed into the breech with a cutting torch—a cutting torch!—and carved a hole in the vehicle’s roof. The woman was pulled free, gravely injured but alive. She would survive. Chance later marveled that all the people involved in the operation were mere passersby—impromptu volunteers. And yet they functioned as a team. Though she didn’t know it at the time, this dynamic was being replicated all over the city.
Chance made her first broadcast as soon as her radio station, KENI, limped back on the air. Power was out across the city. But these were the days of battery-powered transistor radios, and most people owned one. Speaking from a portable transmitter in her car, Chance gave a brief overview of what she knew. For many survivors, Chance’s voice, crackling through the darkness, was their first signal that life went on in the wider world. She urged her listeners to keep warm and check on their neighbors.
Soon Chance had set up a broadcast desk at the Anchorage Public Safety Building, home to the city’s police and fire departments. City employees hurried in and out, and civilian volunteers as well. Everyone, it seemed, had a message they needed Chance to read on the air. “A high-voltage power line is down on Northern Lights Boulevard,” “There is a large crevasse on Seward Highway,” “Both highways out of Anchorage are closed,” There wasn’t much comfort in the news Chance and her fellow broadcasters were conveying. But Anchorage residents remember those voices as a lifeline. “Information,” one would later say, “is a form of comfort.” Another called KENI “our only beacon of light in a night of terror.”
Chance didn’t relay everything she’d seen or knew. Her listeners had all gone through traumatic experiences, she later wrote: “To add to it with a description of blood and gore could cause panic. We could not have panic.” In this view, she was at least partly in sync with the officials in the Public Safety Building. For the police, fear of public chaos outweighed, at least temporarily, concern for possible victims. Before dispatching those casually deputized citizens to keep order in the streets, the Anchorage police chief suspended the search for survivors in damaged buildings. “Arguably, the city was protecting its ruins from looters more conscientiously than it was looking for people trapped in them,” Mooallem writes.
Disaster researchers call this phenomenon “elite panic.” When authorities believe their own citizens will become dangerous, they begin to focus on controlling the public, rather than on addressing the disaster itself. They clamp down on information, restrict freedom of movement, and devote unnecessary energy to enforcing laws they assume are about to be broken. These strategies don’t just waste resources, one study notes; they also “undermine the public’s capacity for resilient behaviors.” In other words, nervous officials can actively impede the ordinary people trying to help themselves and their neighbors.
As in war, the first casualty in disasters is often the truth. One symptom of elite panic is the belief that too much information, or the wrong kind of information, will send citizens reeling. After the 2011 tsunami knocked out Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, officials gave a series of confusing briefings. To many, they seemed to be downplaying the amount of radiation released in the accident. In the end, the radiation risks turned out to be much lower than feared, resulting in no civilian deaths. But, by then, the traumatized public had lost faith in any official statements. As one team of researchers notes, any “perceived lack of information provision increases public anxiety and distrust.”
Elite panic frequently brings out another unsavory quirk on the part of some authorities: a tendency to believe the worst about their own citizens. In the midst of the Hurricane Katrina crisis in 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin found time to go on Oprah Winfrey’s show and lament “hooligans killing people, raping people” in the Superdome. Public officials and the media credulously repeated rumors about street violence, snipers shooting at helicopters, and hundreds of bodies piled in the Superdome. These all turned out to be wild exaggerations or falsehoods (arguably tinged by racism). But the stories had an impact: Away from the media’s cameras, a massive rescue effort—made up of freelance volunteers, Coast Guard helicopters, and other first responders—was underway across the city. But city officials, fearing attacks on the rescuers, frequently delayed these operations. They ordered that precious space in boats and helicopters be reserved for armed escorts.
Too often, the need to “avoid panic” serves as a retroactive justification for all manner of official missteps. In late March, as the coronavirus pandemic was climbing toward its crest in New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appeared on CNN’s State of the Union to defend his record. Host Jake Tapper pressed the mayor on his many statements—as recently as two weeks earlier—urging New Yorkers to “go about their lives.” Tapper asked whether those statements were “at least in part to blame for how the virus has spread across the city.” De Blasio didn’t give an inch. “Everybody was working with the information we had,” he explained, “and trying, of course, to avoid panic.” How advising people to avoid bars and Broadway shows would have been tantamount to panic was left unexplained.
By the morning after the quake, more than 200 volunteers were jammed inside the Anchorage Public Safety Building. And they’d brought equipment: earthmovers and dump trucks lined the street outside. Two volunteers took it upon themselves to organize the crowd. They wrote down names and skills—carpenters, plumbers, electricians—and started matching people to the tasks that were pouring in. Somebody hung up a sign: “Manpower Control.” In little more than 12 hours, the gangs of shouting passersby pulling victims from the wreckage had turned into a workforce. Where authorities expected panicked mobs, instead they found gung-ho volunteers, skilled workers asking only to be pointed toward jobs that needed doing.
Genie Chance was in the middle of it all, suddenly indispensable. She broadcast endless messages: who was now safe; who was still missing. A radio station in Fairbanks began rebroadcasting the KENI transmissions; soon her words were being heard in the Lower 48 and around the world. She also conveyed vital information inside the Public Safety Building. Every time someone showed up with supplies—hard hats, tools—Chance knew where to send them. After all, she was the one who had broadcast the request for those supplies in the first place. Informally, organically, an ad hoc network was growing across the city. It was made up of both volunteers and professionals, all linked by voices over the radio. “A kind of human infrastructure was snapping into place where the built environment gave way,” Mooallem writes.
Six hearses were parked out front. Like everyone else, their volunteer drivers were awaiting assignments. There was talk of needing mass gravesites, or a refrigerated truck for the bodies. But first, someone had to search the wreckage and extract the dead. (And, with luck, rescue any remaining survivors.) The police, unsure how to proceed, handed the job to Bill Davis, a university professor and head of a volunteer mountain-rescue club. Before police had called a halt to their efforts the night before, Davis and others from his group had scrambled through as many wrecked buildings as they could.
By 7 a.m., Davis had divided the city into a grid, and assigned a search team to each section. The teams combined volunteers with firefighters and military personnel. Soon more than 200 people were gingerly picking through the rubble. What they found—or didn’t find—was astounding. Davis expected “four, five, six hundred dead.” But his searchers found no victims in the half-collapsed J.C. Penney building. They searched the remains of the homes that slid down the collapsed bluff but found no bodies. A cautious foray into the half-buried Fourth Street saloons turned up one survivor, a louche gentleman caught in the act of pouring himself a drink. That was it. Expecting charnel houses, the men found mostly empty ruins.
Gradually, the truth sank in: The previous evening’s frantic rescue efforts had been stunningly effective. Tay Thomas, wife of the famous travel writer Lowell Thomas, later told a typical story: The Thomases lived in the modern Turnagain neighborhood whose soils liquefied during the quake. The landslide deposited her and her two small children on a freezing mudflat below a raw, oozing 100-foot bluff. The weather was frigid; they had no shoes or coats. Just then a teenage boy, someone Thomas had never seen before, appeared at the top of the bluff. He threw down a rope.
“In the end, this diffuse wave of unofficial first responders had reclaimed almost all of the city’s injured and dead before nightfall on Friday night,” Mooallem writes. All over the city, ordinary people surged into action, “teaming up and switching on like a kind of civic immune response.” When reporters from what Alaskans call “Outside” began reaching the city, many were openly skeptical about the low fatality numbers being reported by Davis’s search crews. At first, twelve were believed to be lost, but survivors kept turning up. Eventually, the Anchorage death toll settled at an almost miraculous five people. Other parts of Alaska suffered greater losses, not from the earthquake itself but from the resulting waves, which crushed coastal towns. Several native villages were simply “erased,” Mooallem writes. A total of 115 people are believed to have died in the state as a whole.
The social scientists began arriving Sunday morning, 36 hours after the quake. They were part of an Ohio State University research program working under a grant from the U.S. military. Military officials, planning for possible nuclear war, needed to know how American civilians would respond to an attack. Not well, they assumed. But they needed data. The Ohio State researchers had come to Anchorage to find it. It was their first real disaster; in the absence of an actual war, it would have to do.
Here, Mooallem’s narrative takes an almost comic turn. The punctilious social scientists cautiously studied the bustling locals like anthropologists trying to make sense of a previously un-contacted tribe. Again and again they asked volunteers some version of the question, “Who instructed you to do this?” Each time they were basically told, “We just did it.” One researcher wanted to pin down the precise number of sandwiches handed out at a Salvation Army shelter. Finally, his research subject had had enough. When you’re making sandwiches after an earthquake, the man told his interviewer, “you don’t get too statistical minded.”
The team stayed for a week and interviewed nearly 500 people. Enrico Quarantelli, the leader of the study, was particularly interested in Anchorage’s small Civil Defense office. It should have been in charge of search and rescue, but, Quarantelli noted, had quickly become bogged down over questions of bureaucratic protocol. Of course, Bill Davis’s amateur mountaineers had taken over that function almost immediately. Quarantelli used the term “emergent groups” to describe teams of self-organized volunteers like Davis’s searchers. He didn’t miss the irony that the agency created to protect civilians soon became an obstacle that this emergent group of rescuers had to work around. And, far from being a hindrance to trained first responders, those gangs of citizens turned out to be an indispensable resource.
The Ohio State team produced a number of reports and helped influence the nascent study of humans and disaster. But the lessons of the Alaska quake tend to be forgotten when the world turns scary. In case after case, officials have reverted to the traditional view: that the civilian populace is not to be trusted in an emergency. Not surprisingly, this tendency towards elite panic is itself one of the key stumbling blocks to coping with disasters.
We certainly see it in the response to the coronavirus pandemic. From the first appearance of the virus in the United States, officials at the federal level, including the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, tried to maintain tight control over the fight against the new disease. Undoubtedly, individual staffers at those institutions are deeply committed to public health. But those agencies’ policies implied that independent medical organizations shouldn’t be allowed to make major decisions about the coming pandemic.
The delays in rolling out coronavirus tests were particularly maddening. In the early weeks, universities, private-sector companies, and international organizations were all developing tests for the virus. The FDA ordered them not to deploy those tests. The only approved test kit was one developed by the CDC itself, which was in short supply and turned out to be terribly flawed. Other tests would only be permitted after passing through the FDA’s byzantine approval process. FDA bureaucrats, accustomed to their role guarding the public from dangerous drugs, couldn’t bring themselves to relax their rules. To them, the risk of medical institutions trying different methods of testing patients—all without proper federal oversight—must have seemed more dangerous than the pandemic itself.
The FDA eventually relented. But it was too late. Precious weeks had been lost as the disease spread, mostly undetected, around the country. The FDA showed a similar rigidity when it came to protective masks. Though it had been obvious for months that hospitals would face critical shortfalls of protective gear, the agency didn’t relax its restrictions on who could produce the masks until late March. Again, too late.
Elite panic has also flared up as local officials worry about the behavior of individual citizens. State troopers and National Guard troops in Rhode Island began stopping cars entering the state, taking down names and addresses, and instructing visitors that they face a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Other guard troops took the message door to door. Urging travelers to self-quarantine is a good policy. But deploying the police and military to stop vehicles and knock on doors seems like a classic misallocation of scarce resources. Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable, an excellent survey of disaster psychology, recently described the type of communications the public responds to best in an emergency. Instructions need to be understandable, fair, and to provide people with some degree of autonomy, she writes: “Americans will do remarkable things when asked, but they don’t like to be forced.”
The coronavirus epidemic might not lend itself to the kind of immediate civilian response Mooallem documents. There’s no rubble to dig through or ruins to search. Nonetheless, ordinary American citizens are showing the kind of “resilient behaviors” so often observed by disaster researchers. Volunteers sew masks and deliver food. Retired doctors and nurses are suiting up again to relieve their exhausted colleagues. Medical schools are holding early graduations so their students can go straight to the front lines. Even the simple act of staying home and not spreading the disease can be a vital contribution.
Mooallem says the lesson of the Alaska quake is not that civilian responses are always better than the official ones. Trained first responders are vital. But, ideally, designated officials and volunteers can work together. That happened organically in Anchorage, and in many other disaster zones as well. After Katrina, some 400 private boat owners, soon known as the Cajun Navy, spontaneously converged on New Orleans. Often, the boats wound up carrying combined crews, volunteers and first responders working as teams. That’s a good model. Instead of being surprised when armies of volunteers show up, Mooallem says, officials should plan for it: “At least they shouldn’t block those people out. The energy of civilians needs to be harnessed as a resource.”
In the slow-motion disaster of the coronavirus pandemic, we won’t know for some time how large a contribution regular citizens can make. Much of the battle will be fought inside hospitals where civilians emphatically don’t belong. But if we trust in people’s better angels, give them honest information and allow them a bit of autonomy, perhaps they will accomplish more than we can imagine. Faced with a genuine crisis, we just might surprise ourselves—again.
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