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The Sociology of Disaster

I've spent the last several days talking with some of Rhode Island's brightest minds on where we are 10 years after 9/11. It was quite an undertaking - and helps to explain my spotty blogging of late. The interviews will appear in this week's Phoenix. But I'll offer one, here, that we weren't able to include in the paper.

Eric Hirsch, a sociology professor at Providence College, is best known for his work tracking the state's homeless population. But he also teaches a course called "The Sociology of Disaster: September 11." Here is an edited and condensed version of our interview.

WHAT DID 9/11 TEACH, OR REINFORCE, ABOUT THE SOCIOLOGY OF DISASTER? The sociology of disaster is not really a mainstream sociology discipline and has kind of been lost to history. There were a lot of people, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, who were working this area. And the main contribution that they made was to indicate that the stereotypical response of people in a disaster – which is to panic, to behave irrationally, to run, to flee – is false. In fact, what actually happens is the reverse. There’s a phenomenon that they identified called convergence, which is that many people stream into the disaster site in an effort to help the people that have been the victims.

YOU’VE SUGGESTED THE ORGANIC, GRASSROOTS RESPONSE IS OFTEN MORE EFFECTIVE THAN THAT OF THE ELITES. There are a number of really great examples of the response of people themselves to the events of September 11. The first would be the evacuation of the World Trade Center Towers. There were about 25,000 people in the two towers at the time that the planes hit and 2603 people died in the attacks. Obviously, that’s a national tragedy. But that number could have been much, much higher if there hadn’t been an evacuation that was conducted largely by the people themselves in the towers. This included disabled people who were carried down 69 floors in one case. People did not panic. They conducted an orderly evacuation, really a textbook evacuation, of about 20,000 people.

Another example would be the fact that we spend trillions on the military, literally trillions over the decades, but the people who actually prevented the fourth hijacked plane from hitting the White House or the Capitol building were the people on that flight who gained entry to the cockpit, using the drink cart, it’s thought, and struggled with the hijackers to try to gain control of the plane. Obviously that plane hit the ground in Shankesville, but if they hadn’t done that, there’s no doubt that the White House or Capitol Building would have been destroyed because none of the fighters that had been scrambled were en route to intercept that flight.

Even if you look at the video of people fleeing after the towers had collapsed, you’ll see some people are crying, but many people are just running in a very purposeful way to try to get away, which certainly made sense at the time. I’m not sure I would describe that as panic.

  

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