Disasters #2: Lessons for Modern Day Disaster Planning: The Nuclear Bombing of Hiroshima

‘Hiroshima’, by John Hersey (Book Cover), 2002 ed., Penguin Modern Classics. Photo Attribution: Mother and Child in Hiroshima, Japan, December 1945, by Alfred Eisenstaedt – Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

‘Little Boy’, the first atomic bomb to be used against civilians, exploded 1900 feet above Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. Carrying a yield powerful enough to kill almost everyone within a 2.2 miles diameter, over 100,000 people died: approximately 25% from the blast 20% from dissipated radiation, and 50% from explosion-related injuries. Three-quarters of the homes were destroyed. The population believed they had experienced the first use of an atom-splitting bomb and locals nicknamed it the genshi bakudan (Original Child Bomb).

In a series of articles written in 1946 for the New Yorker, the war correspondent John Hersey detailed the experience of the Hibakusha (explosion-affected people), providing insight into the public’s behaviour in the wake of a nuclear emergency. Hersey was both criticised and applauded for documenting the humanity of survivors, who had received little to no attention in media reports. These articles, compiled into one book and titled Hiroshima, retains its power to shock readers for its graphic, but still humanistic, descriptions of an event unimaginable in its scale of disaster and suffering. And yet, the threat of nuclear war (or the use of a nuclear device by terrorists) continue to hang over us today — possibly to an even greater extent than any other time in history.

Emergency warnings and communications from authorities as well as the public response in Hersey’s accounts of the first atomic bomb provide a picture of the behaviour and potential needs of the public following a catastrophe. Examination of these accounts with consideration of contemporary resources provides lessons on how emergency planners might prepare for catastrophes in the modern age and, potentially, save lives.

‘…she saw how tired [the children] were, and when she thought of the number of trips they had made in the past weeks, all to no purpose… in spite of the instructions on the radio, she simply could not face starting out all over again. …. when planes passed over later, she did not waken to their sound.’

John Hersey, March 14, 1958. Attribution: Photo taken by Carl Van Vechten.

One consideration gleaned from Hersey’s writings is that emergency planners should consider effects of message-fatigue on compliance. On August 6th, the siren gave ‘only a small warning’ and, as a result, was ignored by many. Indeed, after Japan joined the war, almost four years prior to the bombing, evacuation instructions repeatedly sounded over public warning systems; yet, in Japan’s efforts to be prepared, it was the repetitiveness of these protocols that led to a negative reaction from the public. In addition to causing anxiety and sleeplessness, the disruption involved in evacuating, only to find warnings unfounded, led one interviewee to testify she would just ignore them. Instead, she sought advice from a trusted source: the head of the neighbourhood association. This issue of establishing a line of trust is of utmost importance in promoting emergency preparedness; individuals will seek information from, and be willing to comply with, sources they deem to be reliable, be it government, medics or family. Hersey’s account shows that witnesses had time to react and, in turn, seek out shelter. Whether on instinct or prior training, these actions are likely to have saved many lives.

‘In an emergency like this, the first task is to save as many lives as possible. There is no hope for the heavily wounded. They will die…’

In the event of a nuclear attack, a hospital surge is likely. It is estimated that for every physical casualty there may be up to 500 people fearing contamination or showing psychosomatic reactions mimicking radiation effects: ‘…her comb carried with it a whole handful of hair…in the next three or four days, her hair kept falling out of its own accord, until she was quite bald…on August 26th, both she and her younger daughter, Myeko, woke up feeling extremely weak and tired…Her son and other daughter, who had shared every experience with her during and after the bombing, felt fine’. Public knowledge of basic physical and psychological first aid are ways in which surge might be reduced. At Hiroshima, in the immediate hours following the blast, medical personnel and facilities were overrun, as only eight doctors survived and the hospital had only 10,000 beds. In Hersey’s article, a doctor remembered that after nineteen hours of uninterrupted work, he tried to rest, but was surrounded by the wounded. He recalled their pleas: ‘Help us, how can you sleep?’ One witness spoke of anger quickly turning inward for not knowing how to help.

‘A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb. Survivors wonder why they lived when so many others died.’ Attribution: Photo and Caption featured in ‘Hiroshima’ in ‘The New Yorker’, August 31, 1946. (article)

‘Be patient’

Hersey’s accounts indicate that updates and assurances to the public by authorities are vital, even when there is nothing new to say. Consistent and credible information also improves mental health outcomes. However, what we have learned from the event, is that channels of communication require careful consideration under the likelihood of infrastructure damage. At Hiroshima, the first (accounted) communications came after twelve hours and announced that a medical boat was on its way. It never arrived, exacerbating anger and damaging trust in authorities. On August 7th, few heard the first radio communication explaining that a new type of bomb had been used –many were too injured or weary to care.  Media outlets made speculations, but lacked credible information and reliable sources. False rumours circulated, such as that large raindrops were actually gasoline – fear and irrationality were heightened amongst the population.

Hibakusha’

By November, people were returning home. Community rebuilding started. “Prosocial” behaviour is now the commonly recognised response to disaster. One advertisement told people not to work too hard, but how could they not? In fact, the following years resulted in economic limbo wherein the Japanese government refused to take responsibility for US actions. Contaminated soil further harmed those sick from radiation exposure. Less effective medications were all that were available. The term ‘Hibakusha’, became a label of stigmatisation, and in time, systematic discrimination, as observed through restricted healthcare coverage. Despite this, Hersey wrote that the victims ‘share[d]… a curious kind of elated community spirit…a pride in the way they and their fellow-survivors had stood up to a dreadful ordeal.’

If used today, public response to a nuclear strike would likely mirror behaviours witnessed in Hiroshima; but outcomes would not necessarily be the same. With few real-world examples of man-made catastrophes to draw on, we must learn from accounts such as those of Hersey. By harnessing evidence-based accounts to increase preparedness, the potential for survival and resilience in the event of disaster is improved.


Louis Gauntlett is a first year PhD student in the Department of Psychological Medicine at King’s College London. He is exploring what makes pre-incident information for preparation in the event of a radiation emergency effective. He also works in the Behavioural Science team within the Emergency Response Department of Public Health England, having undertaken a study of emotional well-being in humanitarian staff deployed to aid in the response to the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

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