A few easy-to-learn skills can keep you alive in earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks and more

Most people assume that they have little control over whether they live or die in a disaster. In reality, we have more control over our fate than we realize. Bottom Line/ Personal interviewed Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—and Why, about what we can do to improve our odds.


Eight ways you can prepare for the unknown…

Understand the freeze response. People worry that they will panic in a disaster, but a far greater danger is that they will freeze up and do nothing. This reaction is rooted in survival instincts from deep in humanity’s past—predators sometimes abort their attacks when their prey fails to fight back—but it can be deadly in modern disasters.

Example: Survivors of the 1994 MV Estonia ferry disaster in the Baltic Sea reported that some passengers stood around doing nothing as the ship sank.

If traumas and shocks have caused you to temporarily freeze up in the past, remind yourself that your urge to delay (or gather unnecessary items before fleeing) is not productive, though it might feel very natural in the heat of the moment.

Also, so you can help others, be aware that loud shouting tends to snap people out of a trance. Flight attendants on some airlines are trained to scream, “Get out!” at passengers on planes that are on fire, rather than speak to them politely.

Put less faith in your experience. Our past experiences play a major role in shaping our responses to future events. If local authorities have warned you to evacuate your home during five previous storms but each warning turned out to be unnecessary, your experience might tell you that there’s no need to evacuate for future storms.

Unfortunately, experience does a poor job of preparing us for exceptional situations. The fact that your home has survived five previous hurricanes does not guarantee that it will survive a direct hit or a more powerful storm. Older people are particularly likely to put too much faith in past experiences during a disaster because they are most likely to have survived previous ones.

Example: Almost three-quarters of those killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were over age 60, old enough to remember similar warnings about Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Camille in 1969. Many of them may have concluded that there was no need to evacuate.

Know your surroundings, wherever you are. Knowing the location of a building’s fire escape routes or a town’s storm evacuation route not only makes it easier to find these emergency routes, it also increases the odds that your brain will continue to function productively during a disaster.

In high-stress disaster situations, our brains rapidly sort through our relevant knowledge in search of useful information and an appropriate response. If we have no relevant information in our mental files, it greatly increases the odds that our brain will shut down or that it will come up with a solution that isn’t helpful, such as waiting for an elevator rather than taking the stairs to get out of a burning building.

A piece of information as simple as “this is the evacuation route” can be enough to keep us thinking straight and get us moving in the right direction, particularly if this information is familiar enough that it is second nature.

Example: Many people think that nearly all passengers in airline accidents die. In fact, between 1983 and 2000, 56% of passengers aboard planes that suffered serious accidents survived. Passengers who review the airline safety information card before every flight are more likely to have evacuation routes and basic safety procedures ingrained in their minds and are more likely to survive an accident, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The safest seat on an airplane… is the one you can get out of fastest. So the aisle seat near an exit row is slightly safer than other seats on a plane, on average, according to a study from University of Greenwich in London, England.

Get to know your neighbors. Professional rescue teams might be slow to reach you in a disaster. Your neighbors are much closer—and they are your best chance for survival if you are trapped or injured during a disaster. The better your neighbors know you, the more likely they are to check on your safety.

Take control of your life. People who chronically see themselves as victims of events are likely to respond poorly to disasters. If you are prone to a victim mentality, pick some element of your life and prove to yourself that you can take control of it. Change something about yourself that you have always wanted to change…or gain knowledge that helps you control your fears.

Example: If you fear flying, read about airplane design. Understanding the basics of aeronautics can help you feel that you have a measure of control even in a plane, increasing the odds that you will remain calm and react well if you are involved in a crash.

Honestly assess your blind spots. Do you consider fire drills foolish? Do you walk brazenly through open areas during lightning storms? Would you drive your car across a flooded road? Lightning, fire and flood are the most consistently underestimated dangers in the US and cause many avoidable deaths. Start treating these risks with greater caution.

Men, in particular, are more likely to die in fires, floods, lightning storms and hurricanes, partly because men are more likely than women to be overconfident in their abilities. This overconfidence leads some men to downplay or ignore impending dangers and evacuation warnings, sometimes until it’s too late to escape. Overconfidence also causes men to attempt to drive or swim across flooded areas or walk across open areas during lightning storms.

Meditate. A 2005 study led by Harvard Medical School instructor Sara Lazar found that meditating on a regular basis expands the portion of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that handles decision making under extreme stress.

Shed excess pounds. Overweight people are more likely than fit people to die in disasters. They cannot flee danger as quickly and are at greater risk for secondary injuries, such as heart attacks triggered by the stress.


Things to do during a disaster…

Breathe deeply. Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, then breathe out for four counts—and repeat until the fear abates. Some police departments now train officers to use deep-breathing techniques to tamp down the natural fear response during high-speed pursuits.

Think of your family. Many disaster survivors report that thoughts of loved ones helped them continue fighting for life when they were on the verge of giving up.

Think like a soldier. Anecdotal evidence suggests that former soldiers are more likely to survive disasters than the rest of us. They know to assess the situation…consider the options…select what seems to be the best one…then take action. This regimented system leaves little room for the worry and confusion that prevents many disaster victims from acting promptly.

Example: When former Navy pilot Joe Stiley was trapped in a crashed airliner sinking to the bottom of the frozen Potomac River in 1982, he calmly implemented a plan of action—free his trapped left leg…remove his seat belt…free his trapped colleague…swim out of the plane. Having this step-by-step plan kept him focused on his task so that his mind did not become overwhelmed by the situation. Only five of the 79 people aboard survived, but Stiley and his colleague were among them.