Discovery Channel to Feature Work of Dominican's 'Dr. Disaster'

A new Discovery Channel documentary features the research of Dominican psychology professor Dr. Matt Davis, an expert on the topic of disaster awareness and preparedness. A film crew from Becker Entertainment of Australia interviewed Dr. Davis last summer in Naples, Italy, while he was in the area studying local awareness of and preparedness for a potential volcanic eruption at Mount Vesuvius. The documentary “Could it Happen Here?” has already aired in Australia and Japan and will make its U.S. debut on the Discovery Times channel on February 12.

An eruption of Vesuvius destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in A.D. 79. Today, a similar size eruption would devastate metropolitan Naples and displace millions of people. Vesuvius is the most active volcano in mainland Europe, having erupted more than 50 times since the time of the Romans; its last eruption was in 1944.

In 2003, Dr. Davis conducted the first study ever done in Italy to evaluate citizens’ perceptions of risk regarding volcanic hazards near Mt. Vesuvius and Mt. Etna. This survey, which focused on the responses of 515 local residents, showed that while these individuals demonstrated high levels of fear and perceived risk concerning an eruption, they felt little ability to protect themselves from the effects of an eruption, especially at Mt. Vesuvius.

This study also found that only 25 percent of residents near Vesuvius stated that they were aware of the government’s evacuation plans for their community, and those who were familiar with the plan had low levels of confidence in the plan’s success. Davis presented his findings at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference in Honolulu in 2004, and at the international and interdisciplinary Cities on Volcanoes IV conference in Quito, Ecuador in 2006. The work was also published in the International Journal of Sociology & Social Policy and the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies.

This past summer Davis and his research partner, vulcanologist Tullio Ricci, expanded on the original survey by distributing 5,600 surveys in two areas: the 18 high risk communities immediately surrounding Vesuvius and the Campi Flegrei, a volcanic area west of Naples. The survey queried residents’ perception of risk for volcanic hazards (the perceived likelihood of an eruption and of how serious its consequences might be), their level of knowledge about the hazards (such as knowing when Vesuvius last erupted); their awareness of the evacuation plan; their confidence in the success of the plan (and in the government officials responsible for the plan); and their sense of community (their psychological bonds to their community and their neighbors).

 “So far the findings of our latest study echo those of the pervious study. We have discovered that contrary to the stereotypical media portrayals of at-risk populations being in a state of denial, people are very much aware that they are living in a dangerous place, and they are worried about the potential for future disasters.”

While the Italian government does have an evacuation plan to relocate 600,000 residents of 18 high-risk communities in metropolitan Naples, Davis says that many residents have not been adequately informed or educated about the plan.

“We discovered that almost half of the people we surveyed last summer say they are unaware of the evacuation plan, and those who are familiar with it have very little confidence that it will be successful.”

One reason for such low levels of awareness and confidence is that the Italian government does not encourage people to think about individual disaster preparedness.

“The Italian government is very paternalistic in its attitude and does not appear to want the public to think about individual preparedness. Their attitude is that when a crisis develops, they will be able to orchestrate the evacuation smoothly; therefore, they have not done a lot to educate the public about the details of the plan. This is quite the opposite of what is going on here in the United States, where people are encouraged to take responsibility for their own disaster preparedness – especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”

“If there is one thing that Hurricane Katrina taught us, it’s that government agencies are easily over-taxed in such crisis situations and can’t be expected to run effectively. Individual citizens must take some responsibility for their own safety and security.”

Davis, a social psychologist who also has done work on tsunami and earthquake preparedness, stresses that to better understand public perceptions about natural hazards and to better educate the public about preparedness, it is vital that social scientists collaborate with geologists and emergency management officials. An interdisciplinary approach to the problem is needed, yet there are very few social scientists engaged in such research.

Davis’ most recent study at Vesuvius was done in conjunction with researchers from the Department of Geological Sciences at the Universita` degli Studi Roma Tre, Professor Franco Barberi, the former national director of Civil Protection for Italy, the Vesuvius Volcanic Observatory, and the Regional Government of Campania, Italy. Results of this study are due to be published and presented at an international conference later this year.

Posted January 19, 2007