A few weeks ago I wrote about some books I’d taken out of the library. This is the first “book report” on one of those books. “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why” by Amanda Ripley.

For any of you who like your books non-fiction and thought-provoking, totally check this one out. It is divided into three sections, each elaborating on one of the three stages a human being goes through when reacting to a disaster. As Ripley explains, “in every kind of disaster, we start in about the same place and travel through three phases”. These phases are: denial, deliberation and the decisive moment.

In each of these sections, Ripley provides fascinating glimpses into the experiences of survivors of some of the most dramatic and traumatic disasters in recent memory, as well as explaining the science and psychology behind many of our more puzzling behaviours. From the stairwells of Tower 1 in the World Trade Center to the crush of the hajj crowd in Saudi Arabia to the floor of a classroom at Virgina Tech, each story proves just as interesting as the last.

Interesting too are some of the facts she presents. “After 9/11, many thousands of Americans decided to drive instead of fly…But something terrible happened in the name of common sense. In the two years after 9/11, an estimated 2,302 additional people were likely killed because they drove instead of flew” (p. 34).

But the crux of Ripley’s book is that, with the right knowledge and practice, everyday people can and do survive amid a disaster. For some, it is because of natural advantages they possess in their brain and in their emotional makeup. For others, it can be a simple awareness of how they should react in a life-or-death situation, and why. According to Ripley, authority figures and governments are missing the boat when it comes to disaster-preparedness. Instead of trusting that with the right background information people will make informed decisions and behave properly, governments instead shelter the public from any details they think will scare or panic them. “In fact,” she says, “I think that the mistakes the public makes in calculating risk are primarily due to this pervasive lack of trust on behalf of the people charged with protecting us.”

Ripley is a big proponent of organized drills and practice sessions to engrave a disaster plan into our memories so that when the time comes, we act automatically and without thinking. In the end, though, it is up to us to become informed about the disasters that we may face, from airplane crashes to house fires, and to be aware of how our bodies and our minds may react. Take the story of Tilly Smith, an English schoolgirl who was vacationing with her family in Thailand in 2004. They were on the beach when the tide suddenly rushed out. Fish flopped around on the sand and on the horizon, the water started to bubble strangely as the boats bobbed up and down. While the other tourists stared out in stunned wonder, Tilly rushed to her mother’s side and said “Mummy, we must get off the beach now. I think there is going to be a tsunami.” Her parents began warning other tourists and then alerted the resort staff who evacuated the beach. And so, a ten-year-old girl saved countless lives from the knowledge she had acquired in her geography class a few weeks earlier. “In the end, the beach was one of the few in Phuket where no one was killed or seriously hurt.” (p. 49).