- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

Never underestimate the American public's ability to deal with a crisis. That's the conclusion of a new Johns Hopkins study on bioterrorism released this week.
"Bioterrorism and the People: How to Vaccinate a City against Panic" is critical of the federal government's tendency to assume that Americans will panic in an emergency situation.
While shaping plans for responding to major disasters, the U.S. government has an ugly habit of excluding the general public, according to Thomas A. Glass, one of the authors of the study. "Often panic is caused by [the actions] of government officials, not the disaster itself."
Mr. Glass and Monica Schoch-Spana, a fellow researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, argue that government officials traditionally exaggerate the likelihood of anarchy.
The study points out numerous disasters during the 20th century in which general public response was calm.
"Historical records have shown that instances of panic in the general public are very isolated," Mr. Glass said. "Life is different from disaster movies, where people scramble over each other without helping one another."
"In disaster after disaster, Hurricane Andrew to the first World Trade Center bombing to the San Francisco and Los Angeles earthquakes, we've interviewed so many people who said it was funny how calm everyone was," Mr. Glass said.
Before the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, specialists believed smoky stairwells were a recipe for panic. "What we found instead," Mr. Glass said, "was a pattern of very orderly self-evacuation. People were helping each other."
Mr. Glass and Mrs. Schoch-Spana point to the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania as an example of the government's mistrust of the general public.
"In the aftermath of that nuclear accident, officials discovered their evacuation plan was out of date. By the time they discovered a new plan, people had already left the community on their own," Mr. Glass said. "The public moved more quickly and efficiently than it took for officials to put a plan in place and tell people what to do."
More recently, in October when two D.C. postal workers died from exposure to anthrax-tainted mail, D.C. health officials passed out plastic bags of antibiotics to thousands of workers.
Many of the workers were visibly frustrated at the prospect of being treated without being tested for exposure to anthrax. One angry worker said: "This is like taking chemotherapy and you haven't even been diagnosed with cancer yet."
Bioterrorism specialists argue that by doing this, health officials lost the trust of people they were trying to help. Mr. Glass and Mrs. Schoch-Spana say this is where future government responses to disasters could improve by recognizing that "information is as important as medicine."
"It's pretty clear that there was a breach of trust," Mr. Glass said. "It's a good example of how people tend to underestimate the public's need for timely information."
The study by Mr. Glass and Mrs. Schoch-Spana will appear in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases on Jan. 15.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide