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Teaching people to take natural disasters seriously

REUTERS/Adam Hunger
REUTERS/Adam Hunger(REUTERS)

In the aftermath of a hurricane, it's not unusual to see news reports with cars floating down the streets and battered residents stranded on their roofs. If you're watching this at home, it's hard not to think, "You had days of warning! Why didn't you get out of the way?"

Robert Meyer, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, studies the way people anticipate the consequences of natural disasters. He finds the problem is not that we're cavalier about hurricanes and tornadoes—it's that we're really bad at imagining how natural disasters actually unfold, and what it would mean to truly prepare. In the language of psychology, as Meyer puts it, we're terrible at building "mental models" of how something bad plays out. . . .

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Meyer's latest research, which is being published in a trio of papers this year, is based on a unique dataset: As Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac approached landfall in 2012, he and his research team called residents of towns in the storms' paths and asked them what they expected to happen and how they were preparing. Residents assumed, incorrectly, that wind was the biggest danger they faced, and on the basis of that incorrect assumption, chose to shelter in place. In fact, the biggest risk was really flooding, which is best dealt with by evacuating. Storm victims also dramatically underestimated how long the storms' aftereffects would last. In an interview published by Wharton, Meyer said that people stockpiled enough food to get them through the hurricanes themselves, but had no supplies for the days and weeks afterward when the roads were impassable and the power was out.

Of course not every disaster unfolds the same way, and it's hard to know whether this one will be the big one. But even when we know a big one is coming, it's such an exceptional event it's hard for us to have a practical sense of the consequences. When you've encountered fully-stocked supermarket shelves every day of your life, it's hard to believe there's a scenario in which those shelves would go empty for long. Meyer thinks one solution would be for local governments to issue more concrete and individually tailored disaster forecasts, possibly by smartphone app. Rather than a blanket warning like, "The Boston metro area should be prepared for up to three feet of snow," messages could go out saying somehing far more direct: "You, resident of 1234 Massachusetts Avenue, should be prepared for snowdrifts up to your doorbell, and to be stuck in your house for four days."

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Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.