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The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why

4.16  ·  Rating details ·  5,814 ratings  ·  941 reviews
It lurks in the corner of our imagination, almost beyond our ability to see it: the possibility that a tear in the fabric of life could open up without warning, upending a house, a skyscraper, or a civilization.

Today, nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Tomorrow, some of us will
Hardcover, 266 pages
Published June 10th 2008 by Crown Publishing Group
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☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣
Incredible. A textbook, basically, on all things scary. And an extremely illuminating one at that.

For all these reasons, perhaps, heroes feel a nonnegotiable duty to help others when they can. “It’s something in your heart, your soul, and your emotions that gets a hold of you and says, I gotta do something,” Oliner says. This finding agrees with the results of other (albeit scant) research into heroism. People who perform heroic acts are very often those who are “helpers” in everyday life, be
Dec 10, 2008 rated it liked it
Easy read on history of disaster planning. Good gut check on understand risk and how to respond. Starts with the Halifax Explosion in 1917 and explores 9/11, 1993 bombing, Sewer explosions of Guadalajara, and Katrina. Some of the interesting items. 1) Initial response in a disaster is always by neighbors or self rescue, so be prepared 2) Understand risk of activities – don’t watch the news (references Taleb above), so Heart Attack, Cancer, Stroke, Car accident. A study showed an additional 2000 ...more
Ellen Gail
Mar 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Storytelling is essential to survival. It’s what turns preparation into ritual and victims into saviors.

I had this review 95% written and my computer died because its battery is crap. And now it's gone.

It was a bomb review. Just pretend you read it and it was REALLY good.

Unfortunately, you are left with the half-assed version of my review, because I've had an extremely rough week; I basically have the mental energy of a toad right now.

Veering away from the disaster that is my life, let's tal
Alisa Kester
Jun 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone & everyone
Shelves: non-fiction
Everyone should read this book! Besides being filled with utterly fascinating tales of how different people react during disasters (did you know panic is actually an extremely rare response?) it gives very helpful ideas/plans for how to prepare yourself mentally for being involved in one. This is the type of book you're always reading bits aloud to whoever happens to be in the room; I cannot stress how terrific and interesting it is...just knowing the most common reasons people die in disasters ...more
David Tendo
May 29, 2013 rated it it was ok
Kinda disappointed to be honest. I mean, it is an engaging read and the her writing style is very readable, which is why I'm so frustrated with how mediocre the actual content was. I think my expectations were misled by the subtitle on the cover - "Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why". From the subtitle I was expecting an eye-opening, thought-provoking book based on scientific studies and statistical research similar to Freakonomics and The Tipping Point etc, but what we got were psycholo ...more
Feb 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book tells you many useful things about survival, human's mind and disasters, and I really enjoy the author's sense of humor as well. Informative, educational and effectively written. We need more non-fictional books like this.

PS: I really like how scientists are having all the fun when they run their experiments: (1) getting people to jump from building (with safety neat beneath) and (2) getting people to swim through a mazelike swimming pool, so they can analyze how human's brain would wo
Shane Parrish
Apr 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An exceptional book about who survives and who doesn't in a disaster, Amanda Ripley writes:

"[W]e flirt shamelessly with risk today, constructing city skylines in hurricane alleys and neighborhoods on top of fault lines. Largely because of where we live, disasters have become more frequent and more expensive. But as we build ever more impressive buildings and airplanes, we do less and less to build better survivors. How did we get this way? The more I learned, the more I wondered how much of our
Sep 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
A couple months ago, my place of employment sent me to a Readiness Conference. I fan-girled out listening to Dr. Kevin Menes talk about his experience in the emergency department responding to the Las Vegas shooting aftermath. Seriously. The guy deserves a medal and is a walking superhero in health care. The next session was on responding to shooters in the work force.

The thing that both Dr. Menes and the expert shooter response trainers continued to reiterate is something I completely agree wi
Jul 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I hate to fly, but if I want to see my oldest son who lives 1700 miles away, I pretty much have to. When I was four months pregnant with this son, I was on a flight that had a fire in the cabin shortly after takeoff, so the pilot told us we needed to assume the crash position, return to the airport, land on a runway surrounded by fire trucks, and exit using the wing evacuation slides. Everything turned out fine, but it was pretty darn scary at the time. I've been terrified to fly ever since, ask ...more
This book was an amazing experience. I feel strengthened and prepared for any disaster that comes my way....well almost any disaster. This book has a great mix of psychology, disaster scenarios, personal stories, and scientific research. It makes me look at things in a new light. And it makes me want to be an emergency prepared nerd. Next time I go to a movie theater or get on a plane, I know I'll be checking for the emergency exits. ...more
Linda Redding
Aug 13, 2010 rated it it was ok
A successful journalist, Ripley can really smith words.This piece reads fast and easily. Also, without a doubt she introduces some interesting concepts about behavior of human beings in seriously threatening situations. I just wish that her conclusions were drawn more from scientific data and less from anecdotes and memories of victims.
Corinne Edwards
I am, admittedly, very interested in disasters and their aftermath. I have been ever since I was a girl - I remember reading about The Titanic with fascination. I was obsessed with Pompeii for a while. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, all of it. Maybe it's because when I was young my town flooded for several days, our basement filling with water and my dad away all day filling sandbags as the streets flowed like a river. I don't know. But I've always had a healthy fear of and fascination with what ...more
Jeff Walden
Ever wondered how you'd act if you suddenly found yourself in a disaster? This book might get you started thinking more precisely about how you'd act. It's not academic research (although Ripley frequently refers to it and consults experts, providing sources in end notes), but it's a decent survey of how people respond to disasters. It's peppered throughout with stories derived from interviews, news articles, and so on, giving it a nicely human feel.

Ripley organizes her book, and attacks the top
Mar 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
Each of us can benefit from this sobering read about human behavior in the face of disaster. There are some real surprises, including how infrequently humans actually panic -- that panic, while it does exist, is not the normal reaction. When faced with overwhelming peril, most of us will become paralyzed and be very slow to act. We will mill about (like cattle), we will look to others, we will gather personal belongings, and most alarming of all, we will forget how to perform the simplest of tas ...more
Jan 06, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
Writing is good. Content is lacking. Only read this if you are interested in disaster case stories.

There is nothing really eye-opening about this. Be prepared, don't stay in denial, have strong family connections which will motivate you to persevere, etc, etc Also that huge pure chance factor (people don't like to accept it & will search for ways people have screwed up when something bad happens to them, because they don't want to believe that freak horrible events could just happen).

Google the
I wish I could give this book six stars. It's absolutely fascinating and will save lives. ...more
Liz B
Jan 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating and convincing analysis of why we do what we do when a disaster comes--whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. The author makes a convincing case that we ordinary people should be better educated about what to do in an emergency situation.

The one crisis I've been in (and everything turned out to be ok, but we didn't know it at the time), I did exactly the right thing...and reading this book helped me to understand why. So here's what happened--I teach school and I was
Sarina M
Jun 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: a
This was so great! So much information and brought up a lot of things to think about. Listened to the audio on a road trip and we loved it.

Things that were particularly interesting
- Panic is actually a rarer reaction to a disaster than most of us would expect (especially after watching movies where people are running around screaming). Governments and companies often withhold information from the public due to fear of mass panics, but actually people are much more likely to panic if they have le
Dec 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating look into how people react in disasters and crises. If you've never lived through a disaster or crisis of this kind and would like to prepare yourself to understand what might happen and how you and others might react I recommend this book highly. If you have lived through things like this and know how you react, then this is a fascinating look into why that might be and how others around you might react and why.

Unfortunately in my life I've had a handful of situations where horrib
Lenny Husen
Jun 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio-books
Amazing. 5 stars, perfectly (and I do not use this adjective often) narrated by Kirsten Potter; very well written. Recommend basically for everyone I know since this was the perfect audio book--entertaining, riveting, educational, makes you a better person for having this information.
Kudos to my cousin Marnie for suggesting this to me.
The book is about Disasters--mainly 9/11, Airplane Crashes, Fires and Floods (Katrina)--and is actually upbeat for such a serious subject--it discusses Survivors
May 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sociology, adriana
Fascinating! Got me thinking how I'd react in an emergency. Freeze? Not a chance! Panic? No way! Risk my life to help others? Hmm... depends. Do everything I can to get the hell out? YES! I'm a survivor. But the truth is, you don't really know till you're faced with it. This book gave me a lot to think about. And the real-life stories were riveting.

Sometimes the heroes are those you'd least expect. Like in that documentary about the cruise ship that went down. When the first responders arrived,
Jan 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting book. Highly recommended. You will never, ever get on a airplane, boat, stay in a hotel, go to a major entertainment event without reading, following and practicing safety and evacuation procedures. It is literally the difference between life and death.
Lisa Filipczak
Mar 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
It's probably due to my profession that I thought this book was so interesting but I really enjoyed it. Ripley put together an excellent book about how and why people react during emergencies. I learned a lot and the content will stay with me. ...more
Feb 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very interesting read, learnt a lot!
Apr 12, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hard to put down book about disasters. It discusses who survives, when, and why. Very similar in style to a Malcom Gladwell book.
Bernie Gourley
Feb 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those interested in who survives disasters.
Ripley investigates a range of disasters and tragedies – natural and man-made – with an eye toward her sub-titular question of who survives and why. Of course, in the process she answers the [often more interesting] converse question of who dies and why? By that I’m specifically referring to those who die while facing the same situations as survivors. i.e. Who dies having had the capacity to survive? Obviously, some people fail to survive because they face a fundamentally unsurvivable event (e.g ...more
Aug 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Disaster Personality… Who knew?! As it turns out, we all have one. Even folks we don’t believe to have any personality at all! My attempt at humor aside, Amanda Ripley examines human behavior before, during, and after disasters. As the reader I found myself examining my own disaster personality. And, more than just picking apart behavior in disasters Ripley believes that by examining disasters and planning for them through the lens of human behavior, we can do better as individuals, as a society ...more
Sep 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: optimistic misanthropes, people with disaster-themed nightmares
Books about disasters don't get much better than this! The subject is fascinating--not the cause of disaster, not the cleanup afterwards, but the actual DURING, which the author calls the "survival arc". The book explores peoples' various reactions to emergencies, and the psychology & evolutionary theory behind them. Perhaps most importantly, the author explains which behaviors are most adaptive, and advocates that ordinary citizens (as opposed to just emergency management personnel or safety co ...more
Jul 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
As a would-be hero I found this even better than I expected, and hard to put down. It would probably make a good companion to The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence as a book about how human instincts in an emergency can be either really helpful or really harmful, depending on the situation. In either case it's useful to know, such as how screaming and swearing (yes, the swearing is necessary too) is very good for bringing someone out of a panic so you can rescue them. ...more
Apr 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
What a fantastic book! Despite the ominous cover, it was a positive look at human reactions to disasters. It took case studies from September 11, Katrina, fires, plane crashes, etc and went through fear, dread, panic, heroism, and other reactions. The book was facinating, presenting so many intruiging facets of human behavior and brain functions. Once you read some of them, you immediately want to hurry and find someone to tell about it or talk it over with. It got to the point that Michael woul ...more
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From the author's website:

Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist for Time, The Atlantic and other magazines. She is the author, most recently, of The Smartest Kids in the World--and How They Got That Way, a New York Times bestseller. Her first book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why, was published in 15 countries and turned into a PBS documentary.

News & Interviews

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” So, this January, as we celebrate Martin Luther King...
43 likes · 16 comments
“The human brain works by identifying patterns. It uses information from the past to understand what is happening in the present and to anticipate the future. This strategy works elegantly in most situations. But we inevitably see patterns where they don’t exist. In other words, we are slow to recognize exceptions. There is also the peer-pressure factor. All of us have been in situations that looked ominous, and they almost always turn out to be innocuous. If we behave otherwise, we risk social embarrassment by overreacting. So we err on the side of underreacting.” 4 likes
“But first, before anyone else, regular people were on the scene, saving one another. They did incredible things, these regular people. They lifted rubble off sur­vivors with car jacks. They used garden hoses to force air into voids where people were trapped. In fact, as in most disasters, the vast majority of rescues were done by ordinary folks.” 3 likes
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