Informal coping and adaptive capacity during disaster

Jeroen Warner (Wageningen University)

We must remember that the very definition of a disaster, that circumstances have exceeded a community’s ability to cope, implies that some form(s) of improvisation will be necessary

Wachtendorf Kendra

Most people are saved and rehabilitated by non-experts in case of a disaster. It inevitably takes time for the police and fire brigades, to arrive onsite and by the time the international search and rescue teams are around, only some additional people will be saved – which is of course still really important as every life counts. If most people are not saved by professional responders, people rely on their relations (social capital), on their organisational powers, on the environment, on their access to money and material resources, on their political connections, and on the general goodwill a disaster creates.

People tend to display pro-social behaviour in disaster – disaster tends to bring community members together and make people temporarily overcome their differences. Group membership can promote altruistic behaviour. Helping enhances one’s self-esteem (being a good citizen) and group esteem.

In 1995 the Dutch Ooij polder, a green area housing 15,000 people, was preventatively evacuated in light of a river flood on the Rhine - which never came, but you don’t know that in advance. An 8 hour traffic jam was soon clogging the roads. Several people with local knowledge went by bicycle and boat. Farmers helped each other evacuate livestock and the cooperative Rabo bank, which the majority in the area were clients of, provided easy facilities to tide business and operators over the evacuation period.

People will use their ingenuity to restore essential production and infrastructure often in informal way to save themselves and others, sometimes recklessly. Informal coping can mean the repurposing of infrastructure including formal but also informal, sometimes illegal channels – smugglers and hawkers who know the highways but also the byways. Police officers may well be aware of these channels, but be loath to share that knowledge rather than deal with it themselves as they are trained to report and deal with criminal activity. But sharing this knowledge with other responders may promote a more adequate/effective response.

Disasters tend not to stick to the disaster scenario, and disaster responders tend not to stick to the script to take action. Planners and rescuers find themselves compelled to operate outside their comfort zone. However, not everything is wholly different. When people perform non-routine tasks and new social structures emerge, these are normally quite closely related to existing structures. This makes improvisation to a degree predictable. People rely on their repertoires and networks. Yet there is surprisingly little ‘planning for improvisation’ after disaster.

Persons in authority may not necessarily be the ones whose judgment is trusted. It is important to know and understand informal local opinion leaders that can be ‘ambassadors’ in times of crisis. As communities tend to be differentiated, there is unlikely to be only one person everybody trusts. But since they tend to be gregarious people, one opinion leader may well know others from other communities.

In your own organisation there are likely to be people who naturally reach out to others outside the organisation, and can conduct more informal contacts with informal leaders.

This is helpful for multiple reasons. Wachtendorf and Kendra claim a cultural change towards “Learning organizations” is necessary. To learn, you have to reflect both on your own organisation and note what others are doing – which means going beyond a ‘not invented here’ mentality, While that sounds easier said than done, fortunately there are people to whom looking across institutional borders comes naturally. So called ‘boundary spanners’ in organisations look outside what others are doing and look for trends and opportunities. Finding these people and acknowledging what they do and know is likely to pay off.

Psychological coping

Another aspect of coping is how people deal with disaster psychologically. Despite the current-day tendency to relabel disaster management to risk management, suggesting risk can be dealt with rationally, disaster is traumatic and life-changing to many. A technological or human-attributed disaster makes people lose their faith in technology and in government,

For example, after the fireworks disaster in Enschede in 2000 part of the Turkish migrant community felt abandoned and lost faith in authorities. on civil rights to restore law and order, excessive measures will make people distrustful of the state. Also while much less frequent than generally believed, looting does take place and the fear or rumour of looters makes people distrustful and less likely to cooperate.

After disaster most affected people tend to refuse offers of mental help, professionals most of all; tirst responders are unlikely to accept help them deal with posttraumatic stress – but it is clear many will need it. A museum exhibition in Enschede 10 years after the 2000 fireworks explosion in Enschede however showed that while a neighbourhood may recover and see positive transformation, some individuals who had faced death develop chronical symptoms, such as substance dependencies and depression, and needed medical and psychological help ten years after. Still, public health research immediately after disaster has proved ineffective, as people are too focused on regaining control of their lives. We have to take the longer view.