Archive for September 13th, 2008

Why do people not heed warnings and/or follow mandatory evacuations?

We do not have an single, simple answer for this.  John Bryant claims, “people do what they value.”  Though an accurate statement, it still doesn’t answer the question, which can be rephrased as “what do people value and how do they come to value it?”

In the context of a natural disaster, I contend, people have a variety of competing values and contextual factors.  All of these variables come together and the decision to stay or go is made (or in many cases NOT MADE, it just happens).

Factors, Values, and Conditions include:

  • Protect my home
  • Protect family
  • Adrenaline of the moment
  • Job obligations
  • “white knight” syndrome
  • No where else to go
  • lack of social connects
  • Lived through it before
  • physical restrictions (health, traffic, disability)
  • ignorance (not aware of a threat)
  • Unclear on consequences
  • Distrust of forecasting, damage predictions (crying wolf, not warned enough, missed landfall)
  • “Celebritizing” of victims (media interviews, profiles of people who do not leave)
  • American “Cowboy” values (against all odds, underdog, we can do it)
  • Rescue and Recovery covers everyone, even those who do not evacuate (inconsistent messaging and delivery of consequences)
  • Do What My Neighbors Do

What can we do to improve preparations and response?

The goal is to reduce loss of life, loss of property and recovery expense to as close to zero as possible.  This goal can be, and often is, achieved through pre event evacuations, in-shelter preparation, post event planning, in event response and quick post event response.

There is a difference in approaches to events we can predict and events we cannot.   An event that we cannot predict means that the most we can know is there is a potential risk (earthquake prone areas, volcano areas), but we cannot see the approaching event directly.  The key to achieving the goals for predicable events should focus mostly on getting people out of the way, property protected and having a plan to get them safely back.  The event itself, should be a none issue in terms of in-event action.  The key to the unpredictable event is in long term preparation, emergency action and recovery.  Though these two types of events share a lot in common in terms of what can work to reduce pain and suffering.

Consider the factors outlined above and with our goals in mind, the approach to disaster avoidance and recovery should involve:

  • Effectively managing knowledge of consequences of lack of preparation and action (variable ratio schedules of reinforcement on planning, knowledge… especially in off-season months or down times)
  • Providing accurate, clear information on forecasts and actions to take (get the media to be more responsible through penalties for abuse and rewards for accuracy and effectiveness, consider forcing all broadcasters to use an NWS, FEMA, or other regulated source for all coverage of all life threatening events)
  • Disable assistance for those knowingly disobeying emergent management orders
  • Providing useful damage scales like Saffir-Simpson for flooding, storm surge, fires, mud slides, cold spells, heat spells (consider condensing the current EF scale for tornados, Richter for earthquakes, flash flooding into 1 general alert system that can be taught throughout life)
  • Increase property taxes for risk prone areas – implement a flat “recovery” fee based on estimation of damage likely to occur over a decade (need to discourage these huge build ups in risky areas or at least have cash on hand to pay for the consequences)
  • Get blackberry, Apple, microsoft, tivo and other information systems to adhere to the Emergency Broadcast System protocol.
  • Provide tax incentives and mandatory insurance rate cuts for individuals and businesses who provide demonstrable evidence of preparation
  • Devote 10% of our weapon making and robotic engineering capabilities to automated, remote disaster protection and recovery robotics
  • Market Ready.gov and other programs with the money currently wasted on “just say no” and other programs
  • Rewards for long term planning on dry brush removal, relocating older, too big of trees, stronger zoning (can manage through inspection but also after a disaster occurs, property left standing where it can be verified it was properly managed should get a reward)

These are just some of the ideas if the goal is to reduce loss of life and property with minimal cost.  [ed. this argument/essay needs a longer treatment to demonstrate that the above concepts will actually do what I claim]

In the end, we may decide (as we currently are) that the risk is not yet high enough to make these adjustments.  As many disasters as we have, they are still relatively infrequent.  On a bad year we have 7-8 major disasters (weather or otherwise) nationwide, most years its 3.  We are a very large nation.  Many other nations, far smaller than the US handle double or triple the disasters and their prep and recovery really is a way of life.  One proxy metric for this is how much money the insurance companies spend on disaster prevention marketing.  If we really were under constant risk, the insurance companies would need to spend a lot on marketing to us to make sure they didn’t go out of business from tons of claims.

In fact, the media and other businesses make so much money and politicians and non-profit groups gain so much credibility for coverage and response of these events, making them less disasterous systematically is probably not a primary reinforcer. This is a subtle point, but likely accurate.

There’s no one answer for why people stick it out in the face of “certain death.”  There are many reasons and sometimes these reasons are more potent to them than even the prospect of “certain death.”

Disclosure: I was in the eye of Hurricane Andrew in 1992.  My family hunkered down for that storm in our stair well of a 2 story townhome in a complex that suffered significant damage, spared only because it sat behind a large hospital.  We stayed because we didn’t make a decision to do anything really until it was too late to make a move.  We barely stocked up on goods either.  And to top it off one of my good childhood friends was visiting from Colorado and experienced the powerful storm 2000 miles from his home.

Miami, as a city, was woefully unprepared.  Very complacent. We spent the day before at South Beach with hundreds of other citizens.  I had my portable radio and pestered my parents all day that I thought it was going to be very bad.

We didn’t have a death wish, we just didn’t know and couldn’t imagine a week without power, with no food – that’s a very foreign concept for most Americans.  We couldn’t imagine a year later that the structural damage to my high school would still be severe enough that chunks of the ceiling would fall on us during light rains.

We also were trapped by a city that has few ways to leave.  US 1.  that’s about it.  And when your cars suck, you have no family within driving distance and you have little money, you make these types of non decisions.

And, yes, my father and I share a fascination with weather.  He’s the type of guy that gets on a roof when funnels form (this I do not do.).  It is exciting to witness nature’s power, no doubt about it.  Some people get their adrenaline from water skiing, some from bungie jumping, some from live theater… we get some from weather.

Put it all together and I would be one of the people you might ask in astonishment, “Why aren’t you leaving?”

Research and Backgrounder

I have compiled some articles, research and thoughts on the subject.

Evacuation Simulations

Anderson Cooper’s blog provides this quick, shortsighted explanation. It is shortsighted because it presents only 1 factor, poverty.

Insights on how Cuba can have fewer than 30 deaths in the last decade even though they get clobbered by hurricanes (2 Category 4 hits already this year):

The secret is the evacuations system. A quarter-million Cubans evacuated during Gustav, and the number for Ike was a staggering 2.6 million — nearly a quarter of the island’s population. Most of the evacuees found family or friends to stay with, but nearly 400,000 were housed in 2,300 government shelters.

“We clearly cannot simply mimic their system, but I think there is a lot the United States can learn from Cuba’s hurricane response system,” said Wayne Smith, the former U.S. top diplomat in Havana. “They have a whole system of alerts that keep people clued in and we don’t have anything like that.”

Here seems to be some of the secret sauce, accurate information and clear consequences:

“By predicting hurricanes accurately almost all of the time, (Cuban) meteorologists have engendered the public’s trust,” said Jane Griffiths of Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. “That’s why people voluntarily respond to evacuation orders.”

And if anyone has doubts, authorities quickly put an end to them. The state news media often makes examples of people who fail to move out — and who are killed or injured.

On Wednesday, an elderly man was trapped under the rubble of his evacuated Havana apartment building when he returned home before the building was inspected for safety. Coroner officials confirmed that he died.

“Unfortunately, there was irresponsibility in this case,” said Lt. Col. Rolando Menendez, a firefighter overseeing rescue efforts. “But in general, the population is following civil defense measures well.”

Recent piece on newsweek:

What kind of person stays?
I heard an interview this morning on NPR with someone who was electing to stay in Galveston. This was a guy, his family and extended family, that were moving into a masonary building to ride it out. They are strong-willed, independent individuals who I think relish the idea of riding out something most of us would consider to be too dangerous to remain. However, this is an evacuation with several days’ warning.

We just did a study on evacuations under scenarios of disasters without warnings. We are very concerned about disasters that occur without warning when we have to do evacuations in real-time—in essence, immediate—for example, an earthquake or a terrorist nuclear attack. We found about two thirds of people with children would not comply with official orders to evacuate until and unless they were able to retrieve their children from school or day care. If we have two thirds of the population with children that would not comply, what we would have is evacuation chaos and an absolute breakdown of disaster response in circumstances that provided no warning. Under those circumstances, unless we got much better at having well-developed disaster plans that parents were comfortable with, we can anticipate extreme chaos as public officials would be unable to stop parents determined to get their kids.

Here is an example of some of the fresh science and modeling in the works for better disaster prep:

Because many of these managers have never had to confront the life-or-death realities of an approaching hurricane, they need a consistent analytical framework to consider the sequence of complex decisions that they need to make. For example, a poorly planned evacuation could cause roadway gridlock and trap evacuees in their cars — leaving them exposed to the dangers of inland flooding. As another example, ordering too many precautionary evacuations could lead to complacency among local residents, who might then ignore the one evacuation advisory that really matters.

“All in all, this is a complex balancing act,” Metzger says.

The concept of evacuating an area in stages — focusing on different categories of people rather than different geographical locations — is one of the major innovations to come out of Metzger’s work, since congestion on evacuation routes has been a significant problem in some cases, such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Metzger suggests that, for example, the elderly might be evacuated first, followed by tourists, families with children, and then the remaining population. The determination of the specific categories and their sequence could be determined based on the demographics of the particular area.

By spacing out the evacuation of different groups over a period of about two days, he says, the process would be more efficient, while many traditional systems of evacuating a given location all at once can and have caused serious congestion problems. With his system, officials would get the information needed to “pull the trigger earlier, and phase the evacuation,” he says, and thus potentially save many lives. Coincidentally, during the recent hurricane Fay in Florida, a modest version of a selective evacuation was implemented successfully when tourists were asked to leave while residents remained in place.

Other factors that could help to make evacuations more effective, he says, include better planning in the preparation of places for evacuees to go to, making sure buses and other transportation are ready to transport people, and preparing supplies in advance at those locations.

Here are a few pieces on “disaster science”. This piece on measuring the preperation, management and response is particularly detailed and helpful.  Even you don’t like the conclusions, there’s value in the concept and bibliography.

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