THE DISASTER RESEARCH CENTER THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY COLUMBUS, OHIO 43210
Research Note #9
S o m e Research Questions and Planning Implications Raised by Observations M a d e at a Flood Threat in Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, September 25, 1964.
J a m e s R Hundley, Jr, .
Department of Sociology January 15, 1965
M u c h of the material i this preliminary report has been n derived using funds f r o m the Office of Civil Defense, Office of the Secretary of the A r m y , under Contract N . OCD-PS o 64-46, Subtask 265lA. The report has not, however, yet been reviewed formally by the Departrnent of Defense nor issued officially by OCD to the general public,
INTRODUCTION As a result of heavy rains in late September of up to five inches in parts
of Southwest Texas, the Rio Grande Rives and its tributaries rose to flood or near-flood stage in Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and Laredo on the American side as
n well as i the Mexican towns of Villa Acuna, Piedras Negras, and Nuevo
O paricular concern on Friday, September 25, 1964, was Laredo, f
Texas, where Weather Bureau and International Boundary and Water Cornmission officials predicted the water would rise to a 39-42.5 foot level. Since this was
9-12.5 feet above flood stage, the DRC dispatched a staff m e m b e r to the scene.
Because there w e r e only infrequent flights to Laredo, the field worker
n had to take a bus f r o m San Antonio, and arrived i the supposedly-endangered
7 area at noon on Sunday, September 2 .
Both formal and informal interviews
w e r e conducted i Laredo and Nuevo Laredo on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. n Organizations contacted in Laredo included: Civil Air Patrol 4 h A r m y , Fort S a m Houston t A m e r i c a n National R e d Cross Civil Defense Police Department Radio Station KVOZ Organizations contacted in Nuevo Lar edo included: Police Department City Government Contrary to the original prediction, the waters of the Rio Grande had crested at only 34.2 feet in the vicinity of Laredo.
h o m e s w e r e damaged by flood waters.
As a consequence, only four
In essence there had only been a threat,
not an actual community disaster.
Even for the threat, the twelve hour warning
-2before the crest occurred had given city and organizational officials ample time to plan and execute such evacuation, shelter, and feeding operations as had been undertaken, Since it w a s evident on Sunday that no community organization had undergone any major stress, the field w o r k focused upon the alerting and preparation procedures. hitially, agencies on the American side w e r e contacted, and M o n -
day afternoon and Tuesday w a s spent examining organizational responses in
n Obtaining information i Nuevo Laredo w a s m o r e difficult than
i Laredo because of the language differences and the greater inaccessibility n
of city officials. The absence of major strain on community organizations did
not s e e m to warrant a m o r e extensive study, so the DRC staff m e m b e r returned after four days. T h e following pages point out s o m e of the research questions and planning implications that emerged from a consideration of the limited data obtained in
this field excursion. T h e questions and implications are divided into three
categories, those pertaining (1) to C D organizations, (2) to other organizations, and (3) to community emergency social systems.
I most instances, only n
questions and implications are posed, although occasionally hypotheses are
The basic purpose of this report is to suggest s o m e research vari-
ables to which field workers might be responsive, and to indicate s o m e practical factors that might be considered in planning for the mobilization and activity of organizations and communities i large- scale emergencies, n
N o attempt is m a d e
to present answers or detail recommendations, nor is any effort m a d e to analyze the specific responses to this particular flood threat.
merely used for illustrative purposes.
T h e incident itself is
Questioqs and Implications for CD Organizations
Civil Air Patrol and ROTC cadets in Laredo seemed to perform the s a m e That is,
n . . function as do CD auxiliary or security corps i other U S cities.
they provided m a n p o w e r for evacuation, shelter, communication, and trans-
What alternative or additional sources of m a n p o w e r are typi-
cally available for use by local CD organizations i community disasters? n
The Laredo CD Director w a s head of a city agency, i e . . ,
Health Department. office.
n T h e County CD Director was a functionary i the Sheriff's
In smaller cities, h o w is the speed and nature of the response affected
by the fact that the person holding the position of CD Director frequently holds
n another and full-time job i an organization which becomes subordinate to Civil Defense during emergencies ?
I Laredo, CD s e e m e d to be equated with the Director as a person and/or n
A m o n g the possible variations, CD can be
with the Public Health Department.
conceived of: (1) as a distinct organization, (2)as a n organization with normal "peace timett duties as well as CD duties, or (3) as a person or small group of persons w h o occasionally "wear a CD hat. What are the consequences of these
different conceptions during times of emergencies ?
4 In Laredo, the M a y o r "turned over the reins" to the CD Director. ,
Legally he did not have to do so,
Is this m o r e likely to occur w h e n the CD
Director is an integral part of the normal administrative structure of a city
than when he is head of a semi-autonomous agency?
Laredo CD had no,plansfor a control center or for shelters but b e c a m e
involved i setting up both. n
CD m o v e d i this direction because other community n
organizations did not s e e m prepared to step i and carry out such functions. n
Is there a tendency for CD to fill whatever breeches develop w h e n other groups
do not act to carry out necessary tasks during an emergency?
6 Lardo CD is concerned about the closing of the border in the event of w a r .
and the effect on the city of thousands of migrants who expect to escape to
Mexico. Laredo CD has no solutions, believes it has not been offered guidance
by regional or national CD, and is resigned to being powerless to solve the
To what extent do community CD units visualize emergency
problems for which they do not actively seek guidance f r o m higher echelons?
Laredo GD had no specific plans for w a r or natural disasters.
the very existence of even a skeletal structure s e e m e d to help in the coordination of a rather adequate community response to the high water threat. A r e even
"paper" CD organizations m o r e functional during times of stress than might
superficially appear to be the case?
As a result of the flood threat in Laredo, the local CD Director:
a . b .
d . e .
feels the need for m o r e m a n p o w e r and vehicles; believes he can convince city officials of the need for a number of CD subordinates; b e c a m e aware that shelter officals should know Spanish; intends to prepare elevation m a p s of the city; is personally convinced that he should have a two-way radio i his car. n
What specific, concrete facts, procedures, needs and so forth do CD organizations typically learn as a result of undergoing a disaster experience?
Prior to the flood threat, CD apparently w a s not positively viewed in the After the event, there w e r e s o m e signs that it w a s m o r e socially
T o what
acceptable to be associated with a symbol of Civil Defense i Laredo. n
extent are even merely threats of emergencies a factor i changing the image of n
Questions and Implications for Other Organizations
Other earlier studies have indicated that there are s o m e major group These also appeared
n differences i A m e r i c a n and Mexican responses to crises.l i this potential disaster, n
There w e r e similarities, but there were also noticeablt F o r instance, all
differences i organizational reactions to the flood threat. n
though evacuation occurred i both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, different organin zations participated in the activity.
not perform the s a m e functions,
Also, similar agencies in both cities did
F o r example, personnel f r o m the Nuevo Laredo
Fire Department searched for dead bodies i the river, whereas this task is n
n usually one for county officials i Laredo.
Presumably, such variations reflect
cross-cultural differences i values and social relationships that exist i n n A m e r i c a n and i Mexican society. n Apart from theoretical implications, obser-
vations of such phenomena clearly raise questions about the possible different consequences o varying structures for emergency planning and functioning. f
Although both cities are somewhat of the s a m e size,
each having a population of over 50, 000, their political structure and resultant functions are somewhat different. Thus, i Nuevo Laredo there is no county n
government, a w e a k state government, and a strong Federal government which carries on m a n y of the activities traditionally a s s u m e d by city agencies in the United States.
Therefore, it w a s the Hydraulic and the Public W o r k s Departments
R A Clifford, T h e Rio Grande Flood: A Comparative Study of Border C o m ..
munities in Disaster, Washington, Disaster Research Group, National A c a d e m y of Sciences, 1956, and Charles P Loomis, Social Systems, New York, V a n .
Nostrand, 1960, p, 136 ,
both under the Federal government, which prepared sandbags during the threat.
It w a s the Water and Sanitation Commission, a Federal department, which
covered pipes and sewers i the face of a possible flood. n Similarly, rehabili-
tion and welfare in Nuevo Laredo is handled either by the Federal government, or by a club of upper class w o m e n w h o collect m o n e y and materials for welfare during the year,
The M a y o r did have under his control the fire, service, and
maintenance departments for evacuation and debris removal, but in emergencies h e would direct them through his Police Chief. Clearly all sorts of questions are involved i the possible differences i n n speed of mobilization, ease of communication, degree of coordination, and so forth, w h e n the city government is relatively simple and very limited i scope, n
as against w h e n it is far m o r e complex and has broader responsibilities, as i n
the United States.
It would s e e m that these are problems that could only be
There are probably not enough formal
studied i a cross-cultural context. n
variations a m o n g American city governments to allow any meaningful examinations of these matters.
Law enforcement agencies.
There are differences i both organizan
tional structures and resource capabilities between the protective forces that w e r e available in Nuevo Laredo and those normally present i a comparable n A m e r i c a n city.
T h e Nuevo Laredo Police Department consists of 75 policemen
I addition, there are about 150 part-time n
and 25 secret service agents.
"watchmen" in the city.
T h e police cars have no radios and thus have to depart Other equipment is also
f r o m and return to the police station after each call.
somewhat limited, even though the department supposedly has m o r e administrative
responsibility over s o m e public service agencies than do the police in Laredo. T h e order of priority i calling upon law enforcement officials i emergencies n n
in Nuevo Laredo i : (1) the policemen, (2)the secret service agents, (3) the s
the eight federal police locally stationed, eight state police locally stationed, (4)
(5) the firemen, and finally, (6)the military.
Given s o m e non-comparability i structure and resources, it w a s not n surprising to note differences between the Laredo and Nuevo Laredo law enforcement agencies i the tasks each carried out. n The Laredo department
n participated i evacuation efforts, for example, but the Nuevo Laredo police
However, the multiple differences in this particular instance precludes
going beyond the general observation that a different structure was correlated with different functions.
The R e d Cross.
The R e d Cross in Neuvo Laredo, as in Mexico
generally, functions primarily as a medical organization.
It operates on the
principle that the greatest need is i the field of health and medical care. n
the R e d Cross administers and m a n s a hospital i Nuevo Laredo which offers n
free medical care and ambulance service.
(There are only four private and T h e R e d Cross does not operate
one military hospital elsewhere i the city). n shelters or provide food.
At the time of the flood threat, one hundred families
The people brought The
i Nuevo Laredo w e r e evacuated to three school buildings. n
their o w n mattresses with them.
T h e city provided food for breakfast.
R e d Cross, in this instance, did prepare the food.
This is a clear example of a cross-cultural difference in organizational
Gf interest is fie fact that R O group provided what the Nuevo Laredo
-8R e d Cross did not provide, i e , bedding. . .
It could be hypothesized that dif-
ferent cultural values affect whether any need which is not m e t by an organi-
il zation w l be m e t by another group or only through the convergence of individual
m a s s behavior.
2 All of the American R e d Cross personnel on the scene i Laredo were from . n
the regional office i 3, Louis. n
These persons generally see their duties as Therefore, to the extent
quite similar for each emergency in which they work.
that the American National R e d Cross is involved locally, one can expect them
to attempt to perform similar functions i each disaster, n
However, what problems arise because of this w h e n non-local-level personnel b e c o m e involved with the local organization? D o national and/or regional R e d Cross personnel have the s a m e conception of tasks as do local chapter m e m b e r s ? If there are differences, how are they reconciled?
3,A National R e d Cross staff m e m b e r i Laredo indicated that the role of the n
organization is to alert, evacuate and m o v e i order of priority: 1) people, n
2) furniture, 3) livestock, and 4)grain and buildings.
T o what extent does
this normative order predict actual X e d Cross behavior in disasters ? Also, do the priorities of National and local R e d Cross chapters generally coincide? 4 On Sunday evening, a free m e a l was being served in Laredo, presumably . only for those persons w h o had evacuated. However, there w a s a substantial
convergence of non-evacuated individuals and it appeared that the A r m y and the R e d Cross might run out of food. Discussion ensued as to whether or not s o m e
people should b e asked to step out of the waiting line, T h e R e d Cross suggested that serving be continued until the food gave out. Organizational personnel m a d e
-9reference to the possibility of a newspaper seizing upon the situation and stating that the R e d Cross had denied food to the needy. served, W h a t are the circumstances under which Organizations see themselves forced to act contrary to what they consider their operating principles because of perceived necessity of maintaining an i m a g e ? A r e s o m e groups m o r e vulnerable to such behavior than others 3 How often does such behavior occur?
Thus, everyone i line w a s n
5 Prior to and during the threatening period in Laredo, one of the radio .
stations periodically called Del Rio and Eagle Pass for weather information. n This station also asked people over the air to call i the amounts of rainfall they w e r e receiving i their neighborhoods. n immense. T h e audience response was reportedly
S o m e of this information was then regularly relayed on to the local
Weather Bureau. This establishment of what w a s essentially an informal feedback mechanism by this organization raises a n u m b e r of questions.
Does involving the general
n public i such activity m a k e t h e m m o r e accepting and likely to respond to later
official.warnings that might be issued by organizations doing this ? What distortions might result in technical assessments of agencies arrived at f r o m data gathered and passed through non-technical communications channels of other groups? What are the conditions which generate the development of such kinds
of information feedback mechanisms outside o the official organizational f
structure for such purposes 3
6 The Police Department in Laredo responded to the threat i various ways. . n
Friday and Saturday, 57 m e n w e r e on double shifts (38 m e n at a time). Eleven
. . . . patrol cars were used f r o m 3 p m to 7:30 p m on Friday to untangle a 15-block
-10traffic j a m resulting f r o m people crossing the International Bridge, m a n y of w h o m had c o m e to see the rising waters.
At least 6 policemen w e r e assigned
to keeping persons back at a safe distance on shore f r o m the rapidly rising Rio
. . F o r a twelve-hour period starting Friday at 1 p m the Police covered
an assigned area warning people of the high water and actually transporting t h e m to shelters. M a n y persons also kept calling Police Headquarters for information
and about the need for evacuation.
All this convergence behavior m a d e it difficult for the police to perform
other duties that they might normally have been expected to perform. they did not station men i shelters or around evacuated homes. n reported at 3-4 a, m, Saturday.
Three police cars sent to guard against further
looting had to be subsequently assisted by two cars from the Sheriff's office and a n u m b e r of Laredo A F B patrol cars.
The police department behavior in this
instance suggests that there are situations w h e n organizations w l lessen their il emphasis on s o m e traditional tasks because of the urgency of demands for the carrying out of other traditional tasks. W h a t are the nature of the demands
which w l lead to such shifts in emphases? Are there differences between oril
n il ganizations i this ? W h a t are the circumstances that w l bring an organization
back to its normal and traditional activities ?
I . Questions and Implications for C o m m u n i t y Emergency Social Systems D
1 A functional breakdown of which organizations did what i Laredo includes: , n a Alerting and Technical Information: Weather Bureau and International . Boundary and Water C o m m i s s i o n (IBWC);
Evacuation: Police, Sheriff, and Fire Departments; Shelter: Civil Defense, Schools, Air Force, and R e d Cross; Food: A r m y and Air Force; M a n p o w e r Resources: Civil Air Patrol and High School ROTC;
-I€f Operations of Control Center: Sheriff, Civil Defense, and C t Cfficials; . iy Information: Civil Defense and M a s s Media; g . h Social Control and Protection: Police, Sheriff, and Air Force Niilitary . Police; . i Rehabilitation: R e d C r o s s .
I might be hypothesized that the occasion of a disaster calls into play cert
tain activities that are to be performed independently of any specific organization available to perform them. C o m m u n i t y strain during emergency arises when the
community collectively defines a situation as calling for certain activities to be performed which are not being adequately performed at that time. Thus, c o m -
n munity stress is the condition of forging out new patterns or innovations i
response to the strain.
T h e key general question to be examined i this conn
nection is w h y does the division of functions among organizations take the pattern n that it does i community emergencies ?
2 Laredo officials called a n 11 a m meeting on Friday before the predicted . . .
high waters w e r e to reach the city. public and private organizations.
It w a s attended by representatives of both
A general coming-together of this sort s e e m s to occur in most community
disasters (whether there has been prior warning or impact is unexpected). Who
typically initiates such meetings encompassing community-wide emergency or
ganizations? What are the general subjects of discussions and h o w are decisions
made at such gathering ? W h e r e such meetings do not occur, what s e e m to be
the consequences for the functioning of community emergency social systsms ?
3 At the 11 a.m. .
meeting i Laredo, there w e r e s o m e allegations of manin
festations of friction between different political factions.
How do antagonistic local political lines or entities affect community
-12disaster operations ? How intense does an emergency have to be to override such differences and allow a measure of cooperation? Is political animosity
in a social system m o r e likely to appear at later rather than earlier stages of the community reaction?
4 O n e radio station i Laredo presented live broadcasts of both the 11 a.m. . n
general meeting and on-the-scene accounts of the high water at the International Bridge.
D o live broadcasts add a sense of urgency or immediacy to a communityls
definition of emergency? Does such public broadcasting of what is occurring serve to weaken the appearance of inter-organizational conflicts which might m o r e easily be expressed in private meetings? A r e there any dysfunctional as= pects to such public airing of a potential threat and the steps the organizations in a community are taking to m e e t it--e. g, . the creation of a feeling that
"someone is taking care of the problems'' leading persons and groups to slacken their o w n responses to the emergency?
5 Seemingly relevant factors in Laredo which defined the high waters as a .
possible threat or not included: a . b .
Previous experience with a highly damaging flood i 1954; n M a s s media reports earlier in the w e e k of flooding and d a m a g e up the river f r o m Laredo, especially i Del Ria; n Conflicting predictions f r o m Nuevo Laredo and Laredo about the height the water w a s to attain; and Predictions of high water from official sources, i e . , the Weather Bureau and the IBWC.
Local people almost inevitably in their interviews and c o m m e n t s touched
on the "54 flood".
It clearly w a s a major reference point or symbol in the
T o what extent do such "historical memories''
historical " m e m o r y " of the city.
-13affect the development of community emergency social systems? D o they tend to slow down or speed up the group response to a n e w threat? In what w a y s are such collective symbols used as a device measuring for what m a y or m a y not happen in the later emergency? Laredo and Nuevo Laredo radio stations gave conflicting predictions about the probable height of the flood.
I part, this resulted f r o m the fact that Mexican n
officals measured f r o m their side of the river (which is deeper) and used the metric system. f Because of the bilingual ability o the Laredo population this
ipformation w a s apparently being circulated concurrently with the not altogether consistent information being issued by the American stations.
It might be
hypothesized that such ambiguity i communication would lead to a tendency to n accept the less threatening information. T h e massing of spectators on and
around the bridge and at the river bank suggests that m a n y persons did not take
the warnings too seriously. T h e question is suggested, to what extent can a
community emergency social system e m e r g e if large blocs of the population do not define the situation as at least potentially dangerous ? T h e combination of m a s s media reports of floods elsewhere and the predictions of high water f r o m responsible sources undoubtedly m a d e s o m e officials m o r e willing to accept the flood threat than would otherwise have been the case. H o w m u c h reliance is placed by public officials on the m a s s media? What happens if there is a difference between the information being presented by the media and by other sources? W h a t difference does it m a k e if a community relies on many, although possibly discordant, sources as compared with a few but
probably consistent s our c e s ?
-146 Several aspects about the limited evacuation in Laredo stood out. .
Officials o appeared on television t explain that certain areas did not have to be evacu.ated because they were on the periphery of the possibly endangered zone. requested to m o v e were i the lowest socio-economic neighborhoods. n approximately 400 families who were asked, about 50 did not evacuate. What, if any, public confusion is likely to follow f r o m a formal announcem e n t that it is not necessary to evacuate w h e n nearby residents can be seen moving? A r e agency and governmental officials m o r e ready and willing to request people f r o m the lowest socio-economic levels to m o v e than they would be to ask others of different social classes to do the s a m e thing? Could the failure to evacuation suggestions by s o m e persons and families be a consequence of their perception of the particular organizations making the requests?
All those Of the
7 In Laredo, the R e d Cross, CAP and Civil Defense a m o n g others, used the .
control center. operation. Other Organizations tended to w o r k f r o m their usual base of
Still others sent representatives to the control center while generally
working f r o m their own headquarters.
W h a t determines who uses the general control center during emergencies and the purposes for which it is used? It might be hypothesized that the m o r e traditional community organizations do not rely as m u c h on, or so heavily use, the general control center as do less traditional, m o r e informal, or less wellestablished groups.
W i l l there be a basically different pattern to the community
emergency social system if heavy use is or is not m a d e of such a center? -What are the consequences for community response if one is never established?
8 C A P and ROTC high school students w e r e used as m a n p o w e r for evacuation .
-15moving supplies, transportation, and communication,
used only for a limited time,
However, they could be
Thus, much of the CAP activity on Sunday of re-
turning shelter supplies w a s accounted for by the fact that the C A P personnel had to return to school the next day. U s e of such volunteers always poses problems in emergencies.
example, what are the consequences of letting relatively inexperienced personnel man part of the communications at a control center? How well can such
n persons be integrated with experienced role encumbents i established organi-
zations? M o r e generally, h o w effective is it for a community in an emergency
to attempt to use young and inexperienced volunteers who have responsibilities
i other parts of the institutional structure? n
l A n s w e r s to a l of the above questions would undoubtedly substantially advance our knowledge not only of disaster reactions, but of organizational, c o m munity, and societal responses to crises.