Be prepared. Unless you are a politician.
Politicians who try to legislate to prepare for disasters are almost universally punished, while politicians who lobby for money to recover from disasters — which can be an exponentially larger amount of money — are rewarded.
Central Washington University economics professor Toni Sipic shared his research on this quirk of human nature vs. Mother Nature at a conference on seismic hazards at CWU Friday.
Topics at the conference, organized by CWU’s Cascadia Hazards Institute, crossed disciplines and ranged from infrastructure resilience, damage modeling for insurance purposes and supply chain management in the face of disaster.
“The more I got into this research the more I realized that communicating hazards is really the key aspect of understanding the impacts,” Sipic said. “We need to be able to communicate the risks of a hazard prior to the adverse event.”
For non-specialists to understand a hazard, the information needs to be presented in a useful way to community members and leaders, he said.
This is where problems in communication often come up, Sipic said, because it can be difficult for people who haven’t spent a professional career studying fault lines, flood plains and wildfires to internalize what kind of level of risk they’re accepting.
Even with a Ph.D. in economics, Sipic joked, it took time to understand the geology concepts behind his research.
“Raising awareness is critical, but how do you go about doing that especially in times when people have limited capacity of time to process ever-increasing amounts of information?” he said. “It is really a hard thing to do.”
“Drop, cover, hold on” earthquake drills for schoolchildren are a good example of successful hazard and risk communication, he said, especially considering how it can be instinctive, yet often more dangerous, to run outside during an earthquake.
It’s also important, Sipic said, for disaster planners to communicate that people need to be able to rely on themselves, at least for a little while, in the event of a catastrophe. If more individuals have a supply of food and water ready, it means a community can put more resources toward those in most dire need when disaster strikes.
“Empowering citizens is the key part of the communication of hazards,” he said.
Risk communication can be challenging depending on the frequency of events and who is being impacted.
Think back to Hurricane Sandy, he said. It hit a more affluent part of the United States, killing few, and compare that to Hurricane Katrina, which killed many more after hitting some of the poorest parts of the Southeast.
“Also, the frequency,” he said. “If we do not experience these events very often, we’re much less likely to have some kind of mitigation.”
When it comes to earthquakes, California is far ahead of other states when it comes to earthquake preparedness, Sipic said. The state’s laws and building codes acknowledge risk and require earthquake hazard information to be part of the information that comes with buying property.
Seattle, on the other hand, which is predicted to have a strong earthquake eventually, does not have the same kind of resilience built into its infrastructure.
“We have to understand that different individuals are going to have different capacities to understand depending on their experiences,” he said. “Someone from South Dakota, for example … is going to be much less likely to care about preparing for earthquakes because they’re much less likely to occur.”
Most of California’s laws came in reaction to deadly earthquakes.
Although mudslides aren’t necessarily a seismic hazard, Sipic said what happened in Oso is an example of poor practices regarding disaster preparedness and communication.
Even though there was information from the state about slide risk, none of it was communicated well, or at all, to those living in the slide zone.
Sipic said he was skeptical that public policy will be able to do much to address these kind of problems.
In democracies, voters seem to punish politicians who would spend more to prepare, he said, even though every dollar spent on preparedness saves $15 in disaster relief. That’s why doing a better job of communicating risk matters so much, he said.
“Most of the policies that we have today that deal with other types of hazards do come after the fact,” he said. “Unfortunately, we discount the future so much, that we have policy making that really is a question of knee-jerk reactions, as opposed to (a) more enlightened, logical approach to this.”