Personal experience and adaptation to disasters

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Two new studies – one survey of hurricane-hit Florida and Texas residents and one survey of residents of California ravaged by wildfires – reveal that negative personal experiences are among the key variables that lead people to take or accept protective measures such as insurance against floods and planned power outages. The investigation into the forest fires, published in Energy research and social sciences, is one of the first analyzes of public opinion on climate adaptation policies adopted by companies rather than governments. The hurricane survey, published in Environmental Research Letters, includes populations, such as the elderly and the poor, that are often overlooked in such research. Findings from both papers could inform public communications and policies to help vulnerable communities protect themselves from these and other extreme events.

Family members travel by boat to their home in Barataria, Louisiana, after flooding during Hurricane Ida in 2021. (Image credit: Getty Images)

“As wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophic events increase in frequency, they are having serious emotional, social and economic consequences on people’s lives,” said Gabrielle Wong ParodiAssistant Professor of Earth System Science at Stanford University School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth), lead author of the hurricane study and sole author of the wildfire study. “It is imperative that we devise ways to mitigate these impacts with a view to empowering vulnerable communities.”

Forest fire investigation

The 2018 Campfire, California’s most destructive and deadliest wildfire on record, was started by power lines owned by Pacific Power & Gas (PG&E). Since each fire season, PG&E and Southern California Edison, major utilities in Northern and Southern California, have instituted temporary public safety power outages to ensure their wires do not contribute to fires during periods particularly strong wind and heat. These cuts affect millions of people.

While they can reduce the risk of wildfires, public safety power outages can also impact health and normal daily activities by making it impossible to use certain home medical equipment, store safe food, school attendance or work. In one previous pilot studyWong-Parodi, found that such stoppages – and, in some cases, even the mere threat of stoppages – were associated with poorer physical and mental health, especially among people living in households with medical conditions, children under 5, adults over 65 and people with very low incomes.

Wong-Parodi’s recently published wildfire survey shows that people with more personal experiences of health and exposure to hazards, such as poor air quality, were more likely to worry about these risks. In turn, they were more likely to sustain power outages. However, those worried about the possible negative impacts of the closures were less likely to support them.

These findings make it clear that communications about power outages that are sent to households in areas affected by wildfires need to consider their vulnerabilities and risks, according to Wong-Parodi. She suggests that utilities work with local municipalities, community organizations and health departments to ensure timely and appropriate communication that provides realistic behavioral information and resources to support home preparedness and possible service substitutes, such as than standby generators. Such awareness can benefit from making explicit the potential negative social impacts of wildfires, such as those related to health and loss of property.

Hurricane Survey

In their recently published hurricane study, Wong-Parodi and co-author Dana Rose Garfin of the University of California, Irvine, surveyed residents of Florida and Texas in 2020 as four potentially major hurricanes brewed in the ‘Atlantic. They found that negative hurricane experiences, hurricane risk rating, and hurricane coping rating were all positively associated with coping behaviors, such as using hurricane forecasts when making preparing travel plans, identifying shelters and putting together emergency kits. Those with more personal experience who also attributed the events to climate change had higher risk perceptions which, in turn, were associated with adaptive behaviors.

The results suggest that behavioral models of climate change-related behaviors should include negative personal experiences and beliefs about the causes of these experiences to better understand individual decision-making processes and inform interventions to promote climate change. adaptation, according to Wong-Parodi and Garfin.

“Leveraging negative climate-related experiences is essential to elicit positive behavior change and adaptation, while simultaneously recognizing and addressing the potential negative mental health implications of exposure to such traumatic events,” Garfin said.

Taken together, the hurricane and wildfire surveys clearly show that effective adaptation requires a better understanding of how people assess risk and worry about the threat of extreme events given their personal experience. , their concerns about possible interventions and, ultimately, the origins of support for interventions.

Learn more about wildfire research at Stanford here.

Wong-Parodi is also a member of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Garfin is an adjunct adjunct professor at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing and the Public Health Program at the University of California, Irvine.

The hurricane study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The wildfire study was funded by Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy.

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