Disaster Movies: Lessons Learned
By Regina Quadir
With the Oscars just 3 days away, movies have been on our mind lately here at CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. Especially disaster movies. They come in all kinds of flavors: deadly viruses, tornadoes, earthquakes, and, yes, even snakes on a plane.
Their special effects can be realistic enough to make us feel like we are right there in the heart of the storm. But frequently, the heroes and heroines of these movies respond to disasters in ways that bear no resemblance to what people in the real world should do.
We can nevertheless use disaster films to consider how the characters could have been more prepared or how they should have reacted if the situation they faced was real. Check out some of our favorite disaster movies and the lessons we can learn from them.
Stormchasers played by Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton inadvertently drive head-on into several F3 – F6 tornadoes throughout the course of the movie, sometimes while trying to outrun them. Although they find love in the end, they lose several pickup trucks in the process.
Do not try to outrun a tornado in your car! If you see a tornado, stop your vehicle and get out. Do not get under your vehicle. Lie down flat in a gully, ditch, or low spot on the ground. Protect your head with an object or with your arms. Learn more about what to do before and during a tornado here.
Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhaal), the son of a climatologist, and his friend, Laura (Emmy Rossum), are trapped with a group of people in a New York City library during a major blizzard whose sub-zero temperatures freeze everything in its path. Despite Sam’s warnings to stay indoors, several restless people venture out into the cold only to meet their demise.
When there is severe winter weather, the best thing to do is remain safely indoors. You should stock up on emergency supplies beforehand and listen to weather forecasts to stay informed. Make any trips outside as brief as possible, and dress warmly and stay dry. Prepare your car by getting maintenance service on your vehicle as recommended, keeping the gas tank near full, and keeping an emergency kit for the car. Learn more about winter weather preparedness here.
A chef at a casino in China prepares a pig carcass for dinner with his bare hands and then shakes the hands of an unsuspecting businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) without washing his hands, thereby introducing a pig-bat supervirus to humans for the first time. The virus goes on to kill tens of millions in just a few months.
The chef should have been more careful about washing his hands so that he could have avoided spreading the animal virus to humans. The simple act of frequent handwashing has the ability to save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention. Prevent foodborne illness, the spread of disease, and outbreaks by washing your hands regularly, especially after activities such as using the bathroom, handling an animal, or preparing food. Practice the four-steps to food safety and learn more about proper handwashing habits.
Half of a comet smashes into the Earth, triggering 1,500-foot high tsunamis that race towards the coast of North America. Many people remain on beaches until they are overwhelmed by the waves. Those that seek higher ground survive.
If a tsunami is approaching, beaches are not the best place to congregate. Move immediately to higher ground. Follow the advice of local emergency and law enforcement authorities. High, multi-story concrete hotels are located in many low-lying coastal areas. The upper floors of these hotels can provide a safe refuge if you hear a tsunami warning and you can’t quickly move inland to higher ground. Learn more about what to do before and after a tsunami here.
Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon) and friends are visiting a convenience store when the ground beneath them starts to shake. To save themselves, they jump on top of the store’s shelving and then decide to head to the roof of the building after the shelving collapses.
While real earthquakes are not caused by giant man-eating worms, if you find yourself in the middle of an earthquake, you should not climb on top of unstable objects or stand in a doorway or attempt to run to other rooms. You are safer under a table. DROP down onto your hands and knee, COVER your head and neck, and HOLD on to your shelter (or head and neck) until shaking stops. Learn more about earthquake preparedness here.
After the volcano explodes, volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) handsomely crashes a pickup truck full of women and children into an abandoned mineshaft in order to avoid a quickly approaching lava flow and ash cloud.
Instead of driving into an abandoned mineshaft, follow designated evacuation routes. If you live in a known volcanic hazard area, develop an evacuation plan for your household. Prepare an emergency kit for your vehicle and include things like food and water, goggles, and dust masks or other breathing protection. Learn more about how to prepare for a volcanic eruption here.
After downing an alien fighter plane that has separated from the mother ship, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) foolishly approaches the downed plane, unarmed, only to find that the alien pilot is still alive. Smith’s character punches the alien in the face, quipping “welcome to Earth.”
In case of an alien invasion, do not attempt to save humankind all by yourself. If an alien asks you to take it to your leader, buy yourself some time by showing it a Lady Gaga music video and dial 9-1-1 while it watches. In the event an international strike force by our world’s greatest celebrity action heroes cannot prevail against the alien fleet, then…well…might as well just sit back and relax with another good disaster movie as you wait for our new alien overlords to tell us what to do.
What other lessons have you learned from disaster movies? What is your favorite apocalyptic movie? Let us know in the comments.
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- Page last reviewed:May 1, 2013
- Page last updated:May 1, 2013
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