Flood risk denial in US coastal communities

April 2, 2018, Lehigh University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Rising sea levels have worsened the destruction that routine tidal flooding causes in the nation's coastal communities. On the U.S. mainland, communities in Louisiana, Florida and Maryland are most at risk.

Stemming the loss of life and property is a complex problem. Elected officials can enact policies to try to lessen the damage of future flooding. Engineers can retrofit vulnerable buildings. But, in the face of a rising tide, changing hearts and minds might be the most formidable obstacle to decreasing the damage done by flooding.

David Casagrande, associate professor of anthropology, is exploring attitudes and perception around flood risk.

"When people's homes are damaged by flooding year after year and they are offered a buyout, why don't they leave?" asks Casagrande.

Casagrande is part of a National Science Foundation-funded, cross-disciplinary team of researchers in anthropology, hydrogeology, and planning from Lehigh, Western Illinois University and the University of California, Davis who are studying impediments to flood mitigation in the Midwest. They are identifying flood-prone locations, key individuals, and intervention strategies that lead to community-based mitigation. Their work indicates that mitigation is most likely to occur soon after a flood, and is most successful when decisions are community-based.

He is also part of a team of researchers from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland and the State of Maryland who are looking at similar issues in Maryland's Eastern Shore region, an area that is highly vulnerable to current and future coastal hazards. According to the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, the sea level is expected to rise by at least 1.4 feet by 2050 and possibly over 5 feet by 2100.

Casagrande and his colleagues have surveyed residents, as well as conducted in-person interviews and focus groups. He will be presenting some of his findings at the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SFAA). This year's meeting, Philadelphia Sustainable Futures SFAA 2018, will take place in Philadelphia, April 3-7, 2018. Casagrande will present in a session called "Sustainable Futures of Chesapeake Communities Facing Relative Sea-level Rise" on Wednesday, April 4.

From the SFAA program: "In this session, we apply ethnographic, cognitive, and linguistic perspectives on how local residents and policy-makers are communicating and making decisions (or not) about adaptation to increased flooding. Culturally informed dialogue could promote decisions that support more sustainable futures for Chesapeake communities."

"In some cases, houses on Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay have been in families for thirteen generations," said Casagrande. "They're not going anywhere."

Casagrande employs cognitive dissonance theory to identify the rationales that residents employ to "avoid having to make really difficult decisions"—such as leaving.

Cognitive dissonance theory says that individuals have a tendency to seek consistency in their beliefs. When encountering information that does not fit in with their beliefs, individuals seek to eradicate the discomfort caused by the inconsistency—or dissonance—by changing their beliefs, changing their behavior, or rationalizing to explain the inconsistency.

One common way that residents of -prone communities rationalize their choice to stay is by scapegoating—or placing blame elsewhere.

"On Smith Island, for example, many people blame the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for not doing a better job of preventing erosion," says Casagrande. "There is an erosion problem, but that is not the only challenge."

Another tactic to resolve inconsistencies is social comparison, which states that individuals tend to evaluate their own situation by comparing it to others.

In other words, according to Casagrande, residents justify their decision to stay by believing that other places are so much worse.

When Casagrande, working on a separate project, interviewed a resident of an area along the Mississippi River that had recently experienced severe flooding and a simultaneous tornado—he asked: Do you think is a dangerous place to live?

Paraphrasing the resident's response, Casagrande says: "'No! Look at California - the earthquakes, the forest fires, mud slides...' It's always worse somewhere else."

"Research participants use strategies to downplay risk and favor large-scale technological options over difficult household decisions," says Casagrande. "Many prefer to accept known risk to avoid options like relocation that engender uncertainty."

There is a positive side to engaging in this work, says Casagrande:

"We are actively helping communities mitigate as we learn how social relationships affect attitudes and actions."

Only if individuals believe they are truly at risk will they begin to take steps to prevent disaster. Individual beliefs are often formed at the community-level, and, according to this research, that is where interventions are most effective.

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