The Dangers of Denial
Hurricane Katrina’s victims in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are now a public-relations nightmare for the government—federal, state and local.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked the media to refrain from taking photographs of recovered bodies, but many Americans believe it’s not about preserving victims’ dignity. In a poll conducted by America Online, 57% of survey participants disagree with FEMA’s request. Only 23% of the 224,352 poll respondents believe FEMA is demonstrating sensitivity toward the deceased and their loved ones, while 44% think the agency is trying to limit news coverage that reflects badly on the government; 33% feel it’s a combination of the two.
Death is not pretty. Disasters test our mettle as individuals and a populace. We don’t want to think about the potential for catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina—and yet they occur. Denial is the No. 1 reason why families fail to purchase disaster kits that contain critical supplies that can save lives.
Dr. Joy Davidson, a Seattle-based psychotherapist, explains how denial works.
“When we were little tykes,” she says, “we indulged in a lot of magical thinking: ‘If I’m good, Mommy and Daddy won’t yell at each other. If I don’t step on a crack, nothing bad will happen to Mommy’s back. If I eat all of the food on my plate, people in faraway places won’t starve.’ On a cognitive level, most of us grow out of feeling responsible for events that are so obviously out of our control. We stop worrying when we step on a crack in the sidewalk. We don’t equate eating all our food with anything but our expanding waistline.
“Yet, on a subliminal level,” Dr. Davidson continues, “we still believe in magic. Now, our spells go something like this: ‘If I don’t buy an earthquake kit, there won’t be an earthquake. If I don’t stock up on water, there won’t be a disaster in which it’s needed.’ Granted, nobody would admit to thinking such thoughts or making decisions on the basis of abject denial. But our behavior says otherwise; it says that deep down in our infantile, spell-casting, primitive brains, we think we can keep bad things from happening by not readying ourselves. Conversely, we fear that preparing ourselves is a way of saying to destiny, ‘Bring it on, baby! I can take it!’
“These incidents remind us of our actual mortality and may serve to help us appreciate the life, the freedom and the health we have. Being shown how quickly all of these privileges can be lost is an eye-opener. It’s healthy to take these moments seriously and pause to reflect upon them.”
Indeed, the federal government seems to be reflecting upon its heavily criticized disaster response. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff today relieved FEMA Director Michael Brown of his command of hurricane relief efforts. Brown, who still heads the agency, has been under scrutiny for FEMA’s slow reaction time. He is being replaced by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, who has been running rescue and relief operations in New Orleans. Some speculate Brown will soon leave FEMA altogether.
Postscript: After this column was written, Michael Brown resigned as FEMA director on Monday, Sept. 12.