Trying to control the response to a catastropheThe phenomenon known as convergence often hinders disaster response
On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, in the inner harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, a French munitions ship collided with a Norwegian freighter and caught fire. At 9:04:35 a.m., when the SS Mont-Blanc exploded, it did so with one-seventh the power of the first atomic bomb.
The result was North America’s worst catastrophe.
The explosion destroyed some ships in the harbor and sent others skidding across the water. It created a tidal wave so powerful it lifted a tug boat and dropped it on shore. It threw railway cars around and turned over train engines in the North End railway yards.
It destroyed houses in the city’s North End and set hundreds of others on fire. It drove pieces of glass through the eyes of people who had been watching the fire through windows. Every hospital in the city was damaged.
Deaths and injuries totaled roughly 11,000, close to one-fifth of the city’s population.
Response, and over-response, begin
Within minutes, outsiders began to respond. First came two U.S. Navy ships, Tacoma and Von Steuben. They were en route home from Europe, and their lookouts had seen the explosion.
Next came a train from the nearest city, Truro. After that, there were more trains from nearby Nova Scotia communities like Kentville, Wolfville and Windsor and from the Intercolonial Railway headquarters in Moncton in neighboring New Brunswick. Then, after a blizzard delayed rail traffic, there were more trains from cities like Montreal and Toronto and from the New England states and New York City.
Some of this response was of enormous value. Sailors from the Tacoma and Von Steuben assisted the local military by providing security patrols. The U.S. Navy turned another U.S. ship already in harbor, the Old Colony, into a floating hospital. The first trains from nearby communities brought badly needed physicians, nurses and medical supplies.
But within 24 hours, Halifax was overwhelmed by the response. Local officials began pleading with people to stay away and begged them not to send anything that had not been requested. But Halifax was flooded with so many messages they could not be sorted out; most people who offered help and received no answer came anyway. Halifax put inspectors on trains to try to slow down the incoming flow of individuals.
Some places did listen. Told Halifax did not need nurses, but did need building supplies, Maine stopped a train carrying nurses and loaded other trains with the requested supplies. Sydney, Nova Scotia, outfitted its relief train with a stove, food and beds. Its workmen would be self-sufficient, as were the initial responders from the U.S. Navy.
But most responders came assuming they knew what was needed, and in doing so, they created demands on the local community.
The medical teams from Massachusetts, for example, asked Canadian military personnel to help them turn buildings into emergency hospitals, and they expected to be billeted, which meant they had to be provided with food and lodging.
Their response is often praised, yet the Massachusetts medical teams provided assistance mainly to Americans and individuals with minor injuries. The bulk of critical cases had been looked after by the time they arrived. The local medical community was outraged when its crucial initial contribution was ignored in later media reports.
Convergence gets a name
We all know now that what happened in Halifax was not unusual.
In 1957, Charles Fritz and J.H. Mathewson labelled this phenomenon “convergence.” They said that in the wake of a disaster, one could expect three types of convergence: too many people, too many supplies and too many messages.
They assumed that official convergence was all right; it was volunteers that were the problem. If media reports were blacked out, things would be sorted out before the unwanted arrivals showed up.
In a monograph published for the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, however, I suggested that even official convergence can be overwhelming. I documented the response to a tire fire in Southern Ontario where there were at least 400 responders, not including the media; and showed that this response was not triggered by news reports.
Of course, given today’s technology, the idea of a media blackout seems absurd.
The problem of uncontrolled response was obvious after Hurricane Katrina, when there were so many responses that the U.S. Air Force had to take control of the airspace over and near New Orleans.
It’s reassuring to know that everyone wants to help, but it’s an enormous problem if everyone does.
Convergence in Haiti
As this is being written, convergence has struck Haiti. Countries and aid groups anxious to show their compassion have been pouring into the stricken country. The result, inevitably, has been congestion at the airport and to a considerable extent, a lack of coordination.
Some responders have coordinated their efforts. The Canadian and U.S. militaries, for example, have a long history of working together, and the Canadian follow-up (French-speaking soldiers from Val Cartier, Quebec) were actually being flown in using assigned time slots to make sure they wouldn’t be in conflict with other arrivals.
And consultations are now taking place about dividing the impact area into zones, with each responding country taking a zone.
But Haiti is also being besieged by dozens, perhaps hundreds of well-meaning organizations and people, all wanting to be of some use. Individually, this may be admirable, but in total the result is inevitably chaos.
Thoughts about a solution
It is, perhaps, time that countries which normally rush aid in the wake of disaster start working together when no disaster is happening and discuss how they can cooperate with each other and with the country they are trying to assist.
And it seems sometimes to be overlooked that it is perhaps Haiti that should be deciding what it wants, and where and when, rather than others deciding what’s needed.
Admittedly, while that sounds good, it’s difficult. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the United States felt compelled to refuse aid from its allies. After saying “No” a few times, however, it was decided that on the whole it was wiser to say “Yes.” Haiti with its comparably limited resources would find it much, much harder to refuse anything it is offered.
Finally, in the wake of disaster the movement is not just one way. Even as outsiders are pouring into Haiti, others are trying to leave. This includes both foreigners who were visiting when the earthquake happened and those who have families elsewhere.
This, too, is not a new phenomenon. There was significant movement out of Halifax after the 1917 explosion, and two-thirds of the population was airlifted from Darwin, Australia, after Cyclone Tracy in 1974. There was of course also massive, long-term evacuation after Hurricane Katrina.
Fritz, Charles E. and J. H. Mathewson (1957) Convergence Behavior in Disaster: A Problem in Social Control Washington: National Academic of Sciences; National Research Council
Scanlon, Joseph (1992) Convergence Revisited: A New Perspective on a Little Studied Topic Boulder: The University of Colorado