On the BBC this morning I watched the various pictures coming in from Japan. Evacuees in shelters, empty store shelves, devastated landscapes. It's cold there and people have been out in the weather. Right now, hypothermia is a bigger danger than radiation sickness.
For all that the news is grim, what strikes me, is the overarching theme to many of these stories. The Japanese citizens are not passively waiting for rescue, nor allowing themselves to descend into chaos, but rather standing up and getting the job done.
I saw a story this morning about a tiny Japanese village of about 800 people. They're cut off due to the condition of the roads. Rescuers have been bringing in supplies by helicopter, but it's not easy and the supplies are not nearly enough. As always, the biggest need is water.
The reporter names some young man who has "emerged as a leader" and is organizing makeshift mass water purification. He tells the reporter that currently, "The water isn't clean enough to wash our faces."
The video shows an elderly man using a small power tool to remove the top from a 60 gallon metal drum to make a fire in. They're using melted snow and puddle water, they filter it and boil it. They are supplying 800 people this way.
If they waited for the authorities, they would be 800 more casualties.
When I talk to people about preparing for disaster, I always say, "The most important preparations are in your head."
What I mean by this isn't that you should go out and take classes in survival, although skills are always good, but that one needs to get a survival mindset.
Since 9/11 disaster survival psychology has become a oft-studied subject. Some interesting conclusions have been reached. It appears that the Mad Max everyone-for-themselves attitude is one of the LEAST conducive to individual survival, second only to the "I'll wait for someone to rescue me" attitude.
The best strategy for survival? Mutual aid.
EMT's, firefighters, cops, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers and other helping professions are the people most likely to make it out of a disaster.
"OK," one might say, "I understand EMT's, firefighters and cops. They have specialized skills, but what about the others?"
The answer is that they are HELPING professions. In all of the various studies that looked at this, it has been discovered that those people who help others increase their own odds of survival.
The reasons why are numerous. People make less reckless decisions when they have other people to worry about. A group usually has a mix of skill sets. A group can accomplish more tasks than an individual. A group offers mutual protection. A group lessens anxiety and increases alertness.
The first thing people do in a disaster is look for others. We mill, we check in with each other, we look for consensus. If there's no plan, we look for a leader. Often that leader is the one who says, "The exit is that way."
A survival mindset is not about becoming that leader, although that may (and most likely will) happen if you have given any thought, at all, to disaster planning, but understanding that there is nothing so vulnerable as a human being alone.
This is not to say you put aside your own needs for the sake of the group, but that you care for yourself for the sake of the group. In the fire service we say that the first priority is yourself. The second your fellow rescuers. Everything else comes after that.
If you want to survive a disaster, find someone else to look after. Don't wait for the "proper authorities" to come to do it. They're too far away to help you. Whether it's a burning building or a hurricane, you put yourself in more danger if you don't attempt a self rescue. And you are the only rescuer who can get to your fellow victim in time.
Grab hold of someone's hand and say "The way out is this way." Keep enough water purification chemicals on hand, that you could share. Tell someone you'll hold their baby while they eat.
This strategy has worked for our species since the first clever monkey said, "Hey, guys! There's lots of food over here!"