Emergency planning for storms requires a closer understanding of local communities

February 12, 2014 by Robert Brickhouse

Our ability to predict and track hurricanes and major storms has grown in recent years. But our understanding of how people in our communities will react to warnings and what their needs might be has great room for improvement, according to an analysis in the current issue of the Virginia News Letter, published by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

Through news media images, Americans have a deep awareness of the fragile nature of our built environment and infrastructure, authors Joshua G. Behr and Rafael Diaz point out. But a realistic understanding of vulnerability must also consider the resources, social ties and special needs of households and neighborhoods, said the authors, research professors at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University. They urge "a radical shift in emergency planning thinking" to take into account post-storm community vulnerabilities such as disrupted medical care and loss of pay.

Americans have a false perception that people who are most vulnerable to a severe storm, such as the elderly and medically needy, will be likely to evacuate to safety, Behr and Diaz write. Decisions are usually made within a family and social network and often result in sheltering-in-place, they add. Households of elderly or disabled people with weak social networks also are less able to evacuate.

"We also know that frequent encounters with 'close call' storms may engender household complacency and a false sense of security in dealing with the next storm event," the authors write. "Close calls feed skepticism about the messaging surrounding the severity of the next storm.

"If households have modestly prepared for past severe weather events and have recovered from them satisfactorily, then there is a sense that they will be able to manage more serious future storm events. Essentially, these past experiences form a type of benchmark, and individuals may tend to underestimate the seriousness or risk of future severe weather events," they write.

Furthermore, some households, such as those including people with medical conditions or disability, coupled with limited financial resources, are "hyper-vulnerable," Behr and Diaz point out.

Using a hypothetical major storm scenario they dub "Sandtrina," the authors conclude that even after proper warning, the eastern areas of Virginia and North Carolina would be highly vulnerable in many ways besides loss of buildings and infrastructure.

"We posit that systems of social networks, literacy, risk perceptions and public health may be equally, if not more, important to the long-term recovery and well-being of communities than the resilience of buildings and infrastructure," Behr and Diaz write. A household's capacity to absorb the financial impact of a disruption is a key factor sometimes overlooked¸ they add.

Emergency planners and agencies need to begin to visualize and forecast not only the immediate needs for shelters, housing and health care, but the long-term transition times toward stability and wellness of the impacted communities, the authors conclude. "In addition to tracking and warning about major storms, we need to know well all the people in our communities, how they are likely to react, and what their needs could be."

Explore further: Climate disasters: New study explores how people respond

More information: The analysis is available here: www.coopercenter.org/publications/VANsltr0214

Related Stories

Understanding human nature when mother nature wreaks havoc

July 10, 2013

StormView is a software program that gauges how residents of hurricane-prone regions might react in the event of an imminent storm. It was developed by University of Miami professor Kenny Broad and a number of collaborators, ...

Paleotempestology and 2011's Hurricane Irene

November 27, 2013

A new study published in the December issue of GSA Today examines the geological legacy of Hurricane Irene, not only in terms of its impact on current coastal conditions but also in what it can tell geoscientists about the ...

Recommended for you

Can Paris pledges avert severe climate change?

November 26, 2015

More than 190 countries are meeting in Paris next week to create a durable framework for addressing climate change and to implement a process to reduce greenhouse gases over time. A key part of this agreement would be the ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.