If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that my work is focused on making houses safer in future disasters, specifically earthquakes and typhoons. While an important part of this work is technical – an analysis of how houses rebuilt after disasters will perform in a future earthquake or typhoon – there is also an important social component to my work. I want to know what, and why, people think is safe, and I’m doing that in multiple parts.
The first part was a survey that I, with the tremendous help of four local research assistants, conducted in the Philippines last year. We focused on ten communities that were affected by Typhoon Haiyan, particularly targeting households that received a new house from the government or an NGO during the recovery phase. What we learned was that, overwhelmingly, people expected more damage to their house in a future typhoon than in a future earthquake, regardless of the material of the main structural system of their house. We also learned that people living in concrete or masonry houses thought their houses were safer than people living in wooden houses.
While this wasn’t especially surprising, given the destruction and trauma caused by Haiyan, it has interesting implications. Therefore, during my current field visit, I have been trying to understand what it is about typhoons compared to earthquakes that worry people and why concrete is seen as a better material.
What I’ve been learning is what researchers in the field of risk perceptions have known for a long time – people’s previous experiences have an incredible impact on what they perceive to be likely to happen in the future and what they perceive to pose the greatest risk to their house or their family.
We’ve been asking people what type of natural hazards they think could occur in their communities and which ones they are most worried about. Although almost everyone thinks that both a typhoon and earthquake could happen, a strong majority are most worried about a typhoon, particularly something like another Haiyan. When we break down typhoons into wind and flooding threats, there are various opinions – many people are worried about strong winds, but nearly everyone is worried about storm surge. Given the damage caused by the storm surge during Haiyan, this isn’t surprising. As one person told us, “we experience strong winds all the time with typhoons, but the water from Yolanda, we hadn’t experienced before.” Therefore it seems that many people were unprepared for the storm surge brought by Haiyan, which reached over ___ meters in some areas.
But it is not just the Philippines where flooding and storm surge have taken people by surprise. A BBC program that happened to be playing in my hotel this weekend was focused on tropical cyclones, particularly hurricanes that have wrought havoc on the United States. According to this program, people don’t tend to worry about storm surge when they prepare for cyclones; however, over 90 percent of deaths from tropical cyclones are caused by water, not wind.
Think about the images of New Orleans after Katrina. Houston after Harvey. My home state of North Carolina after Florence. What do you remember? For me, it’s the images of entire city blocks under water. Neighborhoods in which all you can see are the roofs.
So we know storm surge is a monumental concern, but many people don’t prepare for it. They board up their houses and prepare for wind.
And what about earthquakes? Many people we’ve spoken to over the past few weeks are worried about earthquakes because they are unpredictable, and they can’t prepare for them. But many more aren’t that concerned about earthquakes because “strong earthquakes don’t happen here.” However, if we look at the location of the two islands where my research is focused, we are right in between the Philippines’ most active fault system and the Philippine trench – two zones capable of producing massive earthquakes. But for many people, because they haven’t experienced a strong earthquake before, they aren’t overly concerned about one happening.
So I think about my friends living in California, many of whom are transplants and didn’t grow up in earthquake territory. Are they worried about earthquakes? Have they prepared? What do they think will happen to their homes if an earthquake hits? I suspect many of their answers would echo what I’ve been hearing in my interviews this month.
Because I do disaster research, hazards, risk, and structural safety are at the forefront of my mind. It’s what I think about nonstop. But the majority of the rest of the population doesn’t. Recurrence rates and building codes aren’t typical coffee shop conversations, understandably so. And for people who haven’t experienced a disaster before, they probably aren’t that worried about one happening.
But how do we get people talking about hazards and their exposure without inciting panic or sparking an indifference bred of an inability to change fate? Many social scientists have, and will continue to, ask this question, but I don’t think they should be doing it alone. Engineers need to be involved in the conversation. We have valuable knowledge about the level of protection actually provided by building codes and estimates of what is likely to happen to infrastructure in the event of XYZ event. We should be talking, not just amongst ourselves and our organizations, but to policymakers and our communities.
So…what hazards are you worried about?