Why People Don't Learn from Natural Disasters
Coastal damage from Hurricane Sandy
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey.

WASHINGTON — In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New York subways were flooded and unusable, and much of the city lost power for several days. But despite such powerful scenes of destruction, most people don't think these disasters will happen to them, so they aren't prepared for them, or for recovering from them.

That lack of preparation, combined with the steady uptick in coastal populations, exacerbates the devastation caused by natural disasters. As the population grows, becomes more urbanized and builds infrastructure in hazardous areas like the coast, natural hazards pose an increasing threat. A panel of experts, speaking June 25 at a science policy conference of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), called for greater resilience in facing such hazards.

Resilience means not only preparedness for a threat, but also the ability to absorb, recover from or adapt to one, said Gene Whitney, a member of the Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters at the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council. The committee recently published a report on disaster resilience.

"A disaster occurs when a natural hazard intersects with a human population," Whitney said.

Despite repeated disasters, the public continues to turn a blind eye to the risks. Developers construct buildings from unsafe materials and in hazardous locations, rather than investing slightly more to avert dangerous consequences. Changing people's behavior will require new tactics and continued efforts to drive home the importance of preparing for nature's hazards, experts say. [Natural Disasters: Top 10 US Threats]

Ignoring the risks

In Chester County, S.C., there's a gigantic wind tunnel that simulates hurricane-force winds. The wind tunnel is part of the Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) Research Center and is funded by the insurance industry. At the AGU conference, Carl Hedde, senior vice president and head of risk accumulation at Munich Re America (a company that insures insurance companies) played a video of houses being tested inside the wind tunnel at wind speeds approaching 140 mph (225 km/h). The video shows two adjacent houses, one of which is built from stronger materials than the other. The house built with superior materials withstands the wind, but the other one folds like a house of cards in a light gust.

If people were to build houses using only slightly better building materials, the houses could better withstand natural disasters, Hedde said. "Every $1 spent on hazard mitigation saves society an average of $4," he noted.

So why don't more people make the investment to be better prepared for a storm?

Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, Robert Meyer, a professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues surveyed people in New Jersey about their perception of the storm's severity. Those surveyed grossly overestimated the likelihood of hurricane-force winds, yet they did not report feeling worried about the storm. Only 16 percent of the people surveyed who thought they were in mandatory evacuation areas actually evacuated, Meyer said in his presentation. Just 38 percent of people living within one block of the ocean or bay thought the main threat from Sandy was water (the rest thought it was wind), and only 54 percent of those people had flood insurance.

The greatest damage from a hurricane is caused not by winds directly, but by storm surge — a rise of water due to a low-pressure weather system offshore.

People never seem to learn from disasters, Meyer said. "We underattend to the future, we too quickly forget the past and we too readily follow the lead of people who are no less myopic than we are," he said.

When Hurricane Camille hit the city of Pass Christian, Miss., in 1969, it flattened a large apartment complex, killing everyone inside. A shopping center was built in its place, and the same thing happened again in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. Now, developers want to build condominiums on that land, Meyer said. [7 Most Dangerous Places on Earth]

People who study risk perception see a sharp difference between risks posed by nature and risks posed by human activities, such as radiation or terrorism. "There's no one easily to blame for [a natural disaster], so it may seem a bit uncontrollable," said Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who studies decision making and risk. "People are in the habit of just accepting whatever nature sends our way."

Another problem is that natural disasters often occur in otherwise desirable places to live, such as near a coast. People don't want to move, Slovic said, and their experience tells them that most of the time, things work out fine. So, people deny that they're vulnerable and "hope for the best," Slovic told LiveScience.

When a natural disaster does occur, people react very strongly right after the event in order to reduce the damage from a future occurrence, but then, the initiative fades away, and people go back to business as usual, Slovic said.

Changing behavior

These behaviors are beginning to change how experts look at preparation for natural hazards, from the federal level all the way down to the level of individuals.

"Urging people to be smarter doesn't work, and yelling louder only makes it worse," Meyer said. Planners should try new policies for risk preparedness, rather than try to change people's attitudes, he said. For example, you could make flood insurance the default, with an opt-out policy. In other words, people would automatically be enrolled in flood insurance, and would have to explicitly cancel it. You could also have the insurance renew automatically, Meyer said.

Slovic agreed that insurance could play a role in ensuring people prepare for disasters, but simply making insurance mandatory may not work. Insurance companies may not want to take on that risk, he said. Rather, "we could have [insurance] rates set at levels commensurate to the risk," Slovic said.

Ultimately, Meyer said, society needs to develop norms of safety, starting with education in schools. If people learn, at a young age, to understand the risks, they could better prepare for them, he said.

Policies for resilience

At a policy level, steps are already being taken to increase the country's resilience to natural disasters.

At the federal level, the STRONG Act (Strengthening the Resilience of Our Nation on the Ground Act), introduced in the Senate in May, would develop a national extreme-weather resilience plan. And back in 2011, President Barack Obama issued a presidential policy directive "aimed at strengthening the security and resilience of the United States through systematic preparation" for the greatest threats to national security, including natural disasters.

At the state level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency requires states to have hazard mitigation plans in order to receive federal aid. Some state plans now specifically address hazards due to climate change.

These are important steps, but increasing communities' resilience to natural disasters will still require participation from individuals, experts say.

Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.