‘Disaster Tourists’ Get in the Way More Than They Help at Disasters

What separates Disaster Tourism from journalism is that the former is more concerned with providing an experience rather than educating the public. The disconnect is a lack of understanding with regards to both timing and situational awareness.

by Brad Milliken / September 19, 2019

In the late summer of 2019, Hurricane Dorian, the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the Atlantic Basin, pummeled the Bahamian islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, peak wind gusts of 220 miles per hour, 48 inches of rain, and 15 to 19 feet of storm surge. Hurricane Dorian left an unfathomable amount of damage to physical, cultural, and social networks in its wake. The magnitude of Hurricane Dorian’s impacts drew the attention of organizations from around the world, and many flocked to Nassau, the location of the disaster response coordination, to offer their assistance.

This community of responding organizations received daily informational briefs where ongoing operations were summarized, and concerns were brought forth for discussion by the group. The capabilities of individual organizations that comprised the group varied greatly, but a common desire to use available resources to assist those in need leveled the playing field of discussion. Several days into the response, a small group of previously unnoticed persons made their agenda known. During one of the daily informational briefs, a prime specimen of this subset addressed the group at large: “I am Tyler from www.TylerisaCoolGuy.com and I want to be on the next flight to Abaco so I can raise awareness of this event via social media.”

To clarify, immediately following a brief where he had been told that food, water, and medical attention needs were unmet, Tyler wanted to occupy space on a flight to “raise awareness” about an event that had dominated news cycles for over a week. This request is the pinnacle of the Disaster Tourism mindset, and Tyler is a Disaster Tourist. In the disaster response community, few descriptors carry the disgrace and stigma of “Disaster Tourist.” Like any other kind of tourist, a Disaster Tourist wants to take in the sights. A Disaster Tourist wants to see something everyone else has not seen. A Disaster Tourist wants an exclusive experience.

Affected persons in their lowest moments after a disaster serve as the attractions a Disaster Tourist wants to see. The feeling of exclusivity for Disaster Tourists comes from walking among those with nothing and having the gall to pretend to understand the full extent of their tragedy. The experience a Disaster Tourist desires is so void of human emotion that even the immense magnitude of total devastation is an insufficient deterrent. The underlying element that makes Disaster Tourism so repulsive is the acknowledgement that suffering exists and wanting to see it anyway. Disaster Tourists knowingly pursue destruction and devastation without the goal of helping those in need, but with the intent to be the first to post a picture.

For the sake of clarity, journalism and the legitimate communication of information is not under fire. Documenting devastation is unfortunate but necessary for more reasons than could fill this page. What separates Disaster Tourism from journalism is that the former is more concerned with providing an experience to the individual rather than educating the public. The disconnect is a lack of understanding with regards to both timing and situational awareness.

When compared to the prioritization of resources in support of immediate lifesaving operations, the social media feed of any individual is meaningless. Disaster response operations feed on information and all offers of assistance must be evaluated. An offer of something meaningless occupies precious mental bandwidth of decision-makers, even if only for a moment, that should be reserved for something more meaningful. Five minutes spent listening to a Disaster Tourist explain their personal views on the importance of their social media presence is five minutes spent not discussing where to set up medical triage for the flood of evacuees coming from Grand Bahama.

In addition to the mental and procedural resources unnecessarily occupied by Disaster Tourists, people without the skill set to contribute during a crisis can become a drain on actual resources. Seats on an aircraft, square footage on a barge, and the items that sustain responders in a disaster environment simply must go to those with the greatest capacity to meet unmet needs. In every comprehensible scenario, the need to raise awareness would never become primary when assessing the allocation of actual resources in support of disaster response.

Finally, and while not all-encompassing, the majority of those who could be called Disaster Tourists are amateurs in the sense that they are not formally trained in any aspect of disaster response or how to function in a post-disaster environment. Those who enter a hazardous situation without understanding what they are getting into are a liability. The reason search and rescue teams do not conduct operations mid-hurricane is so they can avoid becoming subjects of a search and rescue operation themselves. Poor situational awareness can turn would-be responders into additional victims.

At the time of Tyler’s request, the entirety of Abaco’s water utility infrastructure had been compromised by saltwater intrusions, an effect of the storm surge’s occupation of the island’s well fields. All teams deploying to Abaco were notified that they would be responsible for sourcing their own water, an outcome that several teams had expected and prepared for. A discussion with Tyler revealed he was not prepared to source his own water, nor was he prepared to supply his own shelter. In total, he was not prepared to do much aside from taking pictures with his smartphone and eating however many granola bars he could stuff into the pockets of his suspiciously clean fly-fishing vest. If provided transportation to Abaco and given authorization to roam the island, the probability of Tyler becoming thirsty and a victim to exposure was too high to ignore.

Despite this, Tyler and several others like him pleaded with members of organizations who had previously arranged transportation to be taken on a day trip to Abaco. Like spoiled children, they pouted about being denied the experience they wrongly assumed a one-way ticket to Nassau ensured them. As they made their exit, they avoided the line for volunteers. They walked past the signup for persons willing to assist in the emergency supply distribution center as the slew of disaster response veterans shook their head in recognition of the unavoidable presence of people who hid their motives behind empty offers to contribute to the ongoing response.

Tyler’s argument suggested that the only way to truly appreciate the damage of the hurricane and convey it to his social media following was to see it for himself.  In order to seize the notoriety associated with being the first to tell the story he wanted to tell, he had to feel it all for himself. Without understanding the context of Disaster Tourism’s imposition on the disaster response community, Tyler sought to bring his agenda to fruition by attempting to blend in with responders. Within the boundaries of disaster response, the circumstances of Tyler’s request could have feasibly led to his demise, would have required the allocation of resources that could be more appropriately distributed, and unnecessarily consumed mental bandwidth of response decision makers. The continued pursuit of such an agenda actively hindered ongoing response operations. Tyler acknowledged this dilemma and pursued the agenda anyway.

The most frustrating aspect of Disaster Tourism comes from the need for communications and media savvy persons to support the disaster response community. The growing number of platforms on which information is exchanged is a source of both problems and solutions that never used to exist. To process the amount of information made available, the disaster response machine needs people to capitalize on the opportunity to filter and respond to generated content rather than heartlessly contribute to its creation. Potential Disaster Tourists possess a skill set that is only growing in importance. The ability to extract actionable information and verify unconfirmed reports is a skill that is desperately needed wherever disaster response decisions are made.

A small group of individuals, encouraged by their proximity to devastation, discarded multiple opportunities to use their skill set to support the response to Hurricane Dorian. They rejected several chances to contribute to the ongoing response because it was not happening in a way that suited them. There is no excuse for that kind of selfish behavior and there should be no place for people who seek to experience the suffering of others for any purpose other than eliminating it. Those who say, “I am here to help,” and mean it can and will find a way to do so. Those who view that statement as a password into the disaster response club or as a cover for their own agendas will find no entrance to nor quarter from the disaster response community and those responsible for its operations.

As a former officer in the United States Coast Guard, Milliken conducted search and rescue and responded to various emergencies and disasters in the Southeastern United States. Presently, Brad works as a Disaster Services Analyst and Response Lead for the Pacific Disaster Center, where he conducts disaster management analyses in South America and the Caribbean and leads information management response operations in the field.


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