Understanding Human Response to Disaster

Emergency management officials must work with social scientists when developing evacuation plans in order to ensure the highest degree of citizen cooperation in the event of a natural disaster, according to disaster expert Dr. Matthew Davis.

Psychology professor Dr. Davis, who has spent the past decade studying human response to disaster, presented his research into risk perception and preparedness at the Cities on Volcanoes 5 Conference, November 19-23 in Shimabara, Japan.

“Increasing our understanding of how individuals perceive their risks from natural hazards and of the factors related to accurate risk perception is an important area of psychological study, as findings from such work can help to develop more effective community response through education programs and disaster planning,” Davis said.


“Often, emergency management people make evacuation plans without consulting social psychologists,” Davis added. “They have a plan, but they have no idea how the public will react. You need social science research behind you to figure out what’s the best way to educate people.”

Davis said most social scientists study how people react in the aftermath of a disaster, but only about 10 percent study how people behave beforehand. Similarly, little money is spent on preparation, but huge sums go to recovery. “If we could get our priorities straight and switch that around,” he said, “we’d prevent a lot of death and destruction.”

Davis will present three papers at the international conference: “Community Understanding of the Lahar Risk around Mount Rainier, USA,” “Volcanic Risk Perception in the Vesuvius Population,” and “Volcanic Risk Perception in the Campi Flegrei Area of Southern Italy.”

Mount Vesuvius

In 2003, Dr. Davis and his research partner, vulcanologist Tullio Ricci, 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. Indeed, 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.

Last summer Davis and Ricci, in collaboration with Professor Franco Barberi, the former national director of Civil Protection for Italy, and with vulcanologists from the Vesuvius Observatory, 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).

“The findings of our latest study echo those of the previous 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 said 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. 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.” 

Mount Rainier

The town of Orting, in Washington state’s Puyallup Valley, is a fast-growing community, with easy access to nearby Tacoma and stunning views of snow-capped Mount Rainier a mere 30 miles away.

It is also something of a time bomb. Rainier is the second most active volcano in the Northwest’s Cascade mountain range, and an eruption, earthquake, or even a spring thaw could send waves of mud, rocks, water, and debris down streams and rivers in less than an hour, destroying property and taking lives. Similar flows, known as lahars, wiped out 27 bridges and 200 homes when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980.

Davis worked with David Johnston and Julia Becker of GNS Science in New Zealand and Barbara Nelson of Pierce County Department of Emergency Management to survey residents of Orting in the summer of 2006. They gauged awareness of the risk from Rainier’s lahars, how familiar citizens are with the evacuation plan, and how much confidence they have in the plan’s success. 

Of the 257 people who responded to the survey, about two-thirds said lahars could threaten their homes and property. Although the media often claims that people are in denial over the threat of natural disaster, Davis said people usually know exactly what the risk is. “I don’t see evidence of denial,” he said. “The vast majority say, ‘Yes, it’s going to be a problem.’”  More “discouraging or frightening,” he said, is that “only 31 percent of respondents think the official evacuation route is adequate.”

People have good reason to fear, he said. For one thing, roads that lead in and out of the valley are already clogged with increasing traffic. “I was frustrated with all of the traffic lights when I visited the area,” he said. “It’s very congested ... forty-five percent of the survey respondents have considered a different evacuation route, rather than the official one.”

For example, Davis saw an evacuation sign in Orting that pointed up a road that said, “Dead End.” The road appeared to head straight for Mt. Rainier. The route might make sense, in that it leads to higher ground and away from the creek bed where the deadly lahars would rush, but it would probably not inspire confidence.

“What will people think if they’re evacuating and they see a dead end?” Davis said. “Isn’t that self-defeating? The road leads directly toward Mt. Rainier. People will likely avoid what probably would be a good evacuation road.”

“It may be a very good plan,” Davis said, “but if it doesn’t take into account how the public psychologically looks at things, then the plan may fail. The work that I have done makes a case for including the social sciences more in this type of emergency planning.”