You Bet Your Life

How to navigate disaster with less information than you use to buy a car

Christopher Allan Smith

July 20, 2021

This series is about getting you through a catastrophe. The first three articles (see “All articles in this series”) were about preparing and responding to the world around you when it’s consumed by calamity. As our world here was. In this article, we deal with how to handle all the information, good and bad, that comes at you while you are trying to respond to a disaster.

I’m known to you at Quality Digest as the director and main hand behind the video content here. As with some Quality Digest employees, my life was altered with shocking speed in November 2018 when the Camp Fire destroyed most of the communities on the Paradise Ridge in Butte County, California.

And like any catastrophe that includes destruction, the deaths of innocents, factors of human folly, and shreds of knowledge bought at too high a price, there are echoes to be found in the U.S. Civil War.

One morning in 1862, two Union soldiers, Sergeant John Bloss and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell, noticed three cigars wrapped with paper. You see, they were resting in a field where a few days earlier Confederate troops had camped. Unwrapping the paper, they found a memo titled “Special Order No. 191, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia.”

Up the chain of command it went. One of the links along the way was Union Adjutant General Samuel Pittman, who recognized the handwriting as that of Robert Chilton, someone he had known before the war. Chilton now was serving as an adjutant general to Robert E. Lee.

The special order laid out Lee’s plans and revealed carefully hidden weaknesses. Lee’s forces were split five ways and ripe for destruction. It could be a key to his defeat barely a year after the war began.

Unfortunately for Pittman, the Union Army, and the human forces for good everywhere, the information ended up with Union General George B. McClellan, famous for indecision and never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. At first galvanized to act on the information, he soon demurred and vacillated. As a result Lee escaped. The war raged for another 31 bloody months, killing 620,000 Americans, including the U.S. president.

What you know and when you know it

In an unfolding crisis, be it in your business, the leadership of your organization, or the movement of your family to safety in a disaster, information is only as useful as what you do with it. It’s not enough to have the best intelligence if you can’t act in time.

That message lies at the core of this part of our series. As important as good planning is in the face of risk, as important as nimble reactions are as danger looms, getting and using information is essential to managing a good outcome.

Obvious as that sounds, leaders at all levels fail often enough that highlighting the following lessons seems valuable. After the fire, and in the recent rise of disinformation of all stripes, I found that some of the lessons I learned as a journalist are more valuable than ever before.

Lesson 16: Not all information is equal

Even during the first hours of the Camp Fire, as flames marched down the Paradise Ridge, I found myself shocked by something my fellow citizens were doing. I first noticed it at a diner in Chico where my sons and I had gone, in shock I now realize, to get breakfast and assess.

While I waited for the pancakes I ended up not eating, I went on Facebook to see what people were posting. There were already an array of pictures of various buildings, neighborhoods, and landmarks on fire, along with comments, questions, and desperate pleas for information. I tried to piece together only what I could verify.

How could I do that? Although reports from people can be meaningful, the only thing I could verify without being there were photos of places I knew. Maybe by plotting on Google Maps the locations of known fires I could get some idea of the safety or peril of my home and community.

Half an hour later I knew two things: 1) Fire was everywhere, and the map looked like a spray of red stars across the night sky; 2) rumors, recriminations, and misunderstandings were already flying thick and fast. I found over and over one person speculating in one thread, and another person asserting that speculation as fact in another. I read that the town hall, the movie theater, Ace Hardware, and the high school were all burning. Safeway, the church where I went to vote, and Paradise Elementary School were safe.

I found over and over one person speculating in one thread, and another person asserting that speculation as fact in another.

In fact, the town hall and the high school were perfectly safe. Safeway, Paradise Elementary, and my voting place were cinders. The inability of informed and well-meaning people to distinguish rumors, theories, and speculation from facts had never seemed more glaring.

But after thinking about this, I realized why I had expected something different from those Facebook posts. The world is complex and getting more so, but most people aren’t trained in ferreting out subtle nuances of information as journalists are (or should be).

Information comes to us in so many forms, but it all boils down to three categories, each with its own value and drawbacks: rumors and gossip, reports, and verified facts.

Rumors and gossip: These are informal kinds of information, usually coming to us through conversation, texts, or quick calls with friends and acquaintances. They can be useful, and they’re fast. But they’re just as likely to be misinformed or distorted, often arriving with us through a chain of people. As we all learned playing Telephone as kids, few or no people in that chain might have firsthand experience with what they’re describing. The personal biases, understandings, and memory of everyone along that chain could mean that by the time this kind of information reaches you, you’re likely to be hearing a story with little or no true information at all.

Reports: These are something you might get from the news media, an on-location official, or a first responder. They may turn out to be inaccurate or incomplete, but the person relaying the information should have tried to verify it first. An attempt to verify here is the key factor. In fact, this is the reason some journalists are called reporters. Their job is to dispassionately distill the important facts from reliable, named sources. While we have all been frustrated by our news environment during the last few years, I think it’s fair to say at the core of our frustration is the failure of organizations to honor this role of verifying information.

Depending on the news organization, they still may focus on the most interesting facts to keep your attention, but the more reputable news agencies will try to give you the most relevant facts in times of disaster.

The advantage of reports is they are usually better information than rumors and gossip, but the disadvantage is they take longer to assemble.

Verified facts: These are just what they sound like: Known realities verified, proven, and thoroughly established by recording instruments, those who experienced or witnessed them firsthand, and experts. The best we have in human knowledge. Unfortunately, verified facts are the slowest to come, and during a disaster situation may not come until days, weeks, months, or sometimes years later.

So keep in mind that in an emergency, you’ll probably have to operate without verified facts. And let’s be clear: You will have to operate.

Lesson 17: Bad information arrives faster than good information

Although implied in lesson 10, this one deserves a call out. Good information is verified, and verification takes time. As such, there will always be an unclosable gap between good information and bad. Bad information spreads as fast as people can talk, text, or misunderstand, as Twitter reconfirms on a minute-by-minute basis.

But here’s the awful, frustrating, unavoidable truth: You’ll have to act without getting all the information you feel you need. We live in a time when it’s possible to review the attributes of every hotel in Rome before booking a trip. We can read every review of a dishwasher before we buy it online. We can truly weigh the value and relative traits of almost everything. With enough time, we can wring out the best choice for a given action.

When chaos and danger are unfolding around you, your chief priority isn’t to find the cleverest solution or map the best route. It’s about getting out alive.

But as noted industrialist Howard Stark once put it, “No amount of money ever bought a second of time.”

When chaos and danger are unfolding around you, your chief priority isn’t to find the cleverest solution or map the best route. It’s to clear the most fundamental hurdle: getting out alive. Your chances of success go up dramatically if you act faster.

To do that, you’ll have to reconcile your desire for more information with the urgency to act. You’ll have to gauge a mishmash of information from family, neighbors and friends, texts, social media, civil defense announcements, and news reports. But then you’ll have to go.

If you can accept that necessity before the adrenaline begins to pump, you’ll be better off.

Lesson 18: Mind the information gap

Here’s a resource that might help: The Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook. Created by WNYC’s radio show On the Media, which covers ethics, events, and best practices in journalism, it’s a collection of periodically updated rules of thumb for gathering and evaluating information.

It’s also an acknowledgement of the issues and drawbacks of gathering information in an imperfect world. It’s an admission of error and caution that I think would make modern journalism more rather than less trustworthy. Being mindful of journalism’s imperfections can help us navigate the blizzard of information we now consume.

Among the guidelines:
1. In the immediate aftermath of a breaking story, news outlets will get things wrong.
2. Check multiple sources.
3. Look for sources of information closest to the incident at hand.
4. Be wary of anonymous or unnamed sources.
5. Be careful what you share online.

Lesson 19: Take care before you share

If there was one refrain I heard from friends, family, public officials, first responders, and business contacts in the wake of the Camp Fire, it was this: Social media is a problem.

This is a different issue from the partisan, polarized online discourse we see with politics, but some of those misdirected passions do play into the information environment during a disaster.

The amount of bad information, wild rumors, and fearful developments spread online can become so overwhelming that officials spend as much time combating bad information as they do disseminating confirmed information.

As we’ve seen in recent years, depending on the story, the moment, and the fear, some social media posts can have as much impact on our information environment as a prime-time story on CNN, Fox News, or the front page of The New York Times’ website.

That impact comes from you and me. We have the power to fill the public’s awareness. So what should we do? As my friends on the Paradise Ridge like to say, “Don’t stir up shit.”

When you’re tired, when you’re excited about the debate roaring past on your smartphone screen, when you’re feeling like stirring the pot, just don’t. Share what you know to be true. Hold back from infusing the community conversation with rumors, irresponsible speculation, conspiracy theories… bad information. Take care before you share.


This is part three of a remastered and updated version of the Emmy-nominated documentary series A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire.

Lesson 20: Be ready to communicate like it’s 1950

Ten years before the Camp Fire consumed Paradise, there was another series of fires on and around the Paradise Ridge. They came so close to burning the town they made clear to local officials and citizens that we needed to get serious and very thorough in our fire preparation.

One of the implemented solutions was a system called Code Red, a reverse-calling system that allowed the town to call local phones during a disaster and communicate evacuation status and information. It was useful, and I know it helped my escape.

But I was unusually lucky. Because one of the first things the fire destroyed in town were key cell phone towers and relay stations. This included a line that ran to our county’s Emergency Operations Center. Not only did the system fail to work as hoped, but during the early hours of the disaster, some of those charged with responding and managing were hampered by a lack of communication.

Essentially, the more advanced and sophisticated a communication system is, the more fragile it is. So in an emergency, be prepared for your modern communication systems to go dark.

As Butte County Emergency Services Officer Cindi Dunsmoor told me, “We have to have a lot of tools in our tool belt. Whether it’s door to door, sirens, phone calls, the emergency mass notification system, whether its aircraft going through with a loudspeaker… we need more than just one notification system.”

She told me that in 2019, and since then, they have implemented several older systems, including tapping the ham radio community to set up stop-gap information delivery systems.

For you, that means designated meet-up locations if you and your loved ones or employees are separated during a disaster. You can’t rely on a text. You can’t rely on Facetime. You can’t even rely even on a landline phone call.

Lesson 21: Lessons for leadership

This one goes out to leaders, especially in this age of performative leading.

I admit I may be too truncated in my view, but disasters hold a special danger for modern leaders. The pressure to project an image, project confidence and command, while being humble, authentic, and also connected and sensitive to constituencies of all kinds on and offline… it can be overwhelming. The expectation to keep all these conflicting forces aligned can naturally lead to an impenetrable defensiveness, laboring over the language, tone, and content of every public message.

But these impulses are nearly antithetical to meaningful communication in a catastrophe. The tolerance for BS and spinning is never lower with your constituents, your employees, or your community than when we are all raw and hurting in a disaster.

Too often, the best way to communicate is shunned by leaders. It’s to admit our human frailty. Admit fear. Admit that our information is imperfect.

The fact is, disasters humble us all. We are at the mercy of Mother Nature. The tension between reacting before having perfect knowledge doubles for leaders and there’s no clever way around it. The fury of tone-deaf or thoughtless expression can hit and kill like a lightning bolt, but the reward for real, heartfelt communication is something that can last for years after the ashes are cleared.

Two things that stand out to me as I read accounts of other eras’ catastrophes and compare them to the public messaging during our current global pandemic. The first is how our leaders seem to think they must be cheerleaders; and the second is how that relentless cheeriness during a disaster can act like an acid on their standing in the community.

Too often, the best way to communicate is shunned by leaders. It’s to admit our human frailty. Admit fear. Admit that our information is imperfect. Talk to people where they are, on their level. Don’t sugarcoat.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill talked to the British people about blood, toil, and sweat when he urged them to resist the Nazis during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt told Americans it would be years of struggles, defeat, and setbacks before the fruits of their work and fighting could be tasted. When asked about the casualties on Sept. 11, 2001, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said the number would be “more than any of us can bear.” No fluff or comfort.

Here are some suggestions for frank communication during a disaster.

Acknowledge the situation. It’s bad, people are torn apart and pretending otherwise will only distance yourself from them. Acknowledging the tragedy will make your audience feel heard and seen.

Prepare your friends and neighbors for chaos. As with anything new, dealing with an unfolding and unfamiliar disaster is the most difficult thing you may do. Admit and acknowledge that things will be hairy, and that mistakes will be made. Remind others that you’ll be going through it with them and doing your best to minimize the pain, but don’t pretend that the pain, struggle, and missteps won’t be there.

Admit what you don’t know. If there’s one thread that runs through tragedies, it’s knowing that the full truth takes time, sometimes even years, to surface. So admitting your ignorance as we all grope our way through draws you closer to those you lead. Know what you can, convey what you know, and when you reach the limits of that knowledge, admit it.

It’s OK to admit you don’t know. In fact, it will help a scared audience trust you more.

The person who uses these tools the most effectively, that I’ve seen, actually works here in Butte County, and maybe that’s not surprising since he’s had a lot of awful practice. It’s Sheriff Kory Honea, who has helped the county live through the Oroville Dam disaster and more wildfires than can be itemized here. I’ll let him close:

“I think people have to understand that if there’s a demand for information very quickly, what comes with that is the potential that the information isn’t going to be completely accurate. I always begin my briefings with, ‘The information I’m going to provide is the best I have, and please understand that as we gain new information, this is all subject to revision or change.’ I try to set that expectation to let people know.”

It’s amazing how simple and true that advice is, and how few leaders heed it.

About The Author

Christopher Allan Smith’s picture

Christopher Allan Smith

Christopher Allan Smith is an Emmy Award-winning documentarian and journalist. He is the director of the Emmy-nominated series, A High and Awful Price: Lessons Learned From the Camp Fire. He lived in Paradise, California, until the morning of the 2018 Camp Fire, and now lives in Chico, California. Find out more at ChristopherAllanSmith.com.