Would You Survive a Disaster?

Depends on your gender, your reaction time, and a little luck. A new book shows how you can up your odds.

When Amanda Ripley set out to study the world's deadliest catastrophes for her new book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why, her family worried that she'd get depressed. After all, she'd be delving deep into the minds of people who endured tragedies ranging from the 9/11 attacks to the Asian tsunami. But in fact, says Ripley, a reporter for Time, "I actually found the whole thing encouraging. Once you talk to survivors and strip the mystery from a shocking event, you can see that the experience is never as frightening as you would imagine." Time and again, she says, people reported a sense of dreamlike calm: "They said, 'You know what? I thought I was going to die, but it wasn't really scary.'" Here, the author shares other key insights.

IN ANY UNEXPECTED CRISIS, THERE'S AN ODD SENSE OF LETHARGY. In other words, your brain is trying to sort out new and disturbing information, and it doesn't act fast. "The most startling thing I learned about 9/11 was the slowness with which people moved," says Ripley. "Many took the time to turn off their computers." But you can fight off that stupor — simply by knowing to expect it.

PEOPLE RARELY KNOW WHERE TO FIND AN EXIT — IN OFFICES, HOTELS, PLANES. "I always learn a couple of exits, so if I'm in a hotel and there's a fire, I know where to go," says Ripley. "Plane-crash survivors do the same thing." She also suggests keeping a pair of sneakers at work — high heels slowed women down on 9/11.

SOMETIMES IT HELPS TO BE A WOMAN IN A DISASTER. Women tend to fare better than men in events like hurricanes and floods. Why? "They're more likely to evacuate when they're advised to do so," says Ripley. "Men tend to take more risks." But to be fair to guys, she adds, research shows that men — especially blue-collar single men — are more likely to do heroic things, like risk their lives to save others. Cheers to that.


91% of Americans live in places with a moderate to high risk of natural disaster or terrorism.

65% of those who died in natural disasters from '85 to '99 came from undeveloped nations.

9% of heroic acts recorded from '89 to '93 were performed by women.

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.