Disaster ‘wake up’ v. disaster ‘let down’

This is an interesting look by the National Science Foundation at what reactions to expect from homeowners in southern California.  Researchers say is a distinct difference in response to wildfires: people who narrowly avoided disaster while their neighbors were wiped out tend to underprepare for future disasters, while those who live elsewhere but face similar dangers prepare more thoroughly.   An excerpt:

They surveyed two sets of homeowners who survived a series of devastating wildfires in Kelowna, British Columbia. The fires caused the evacuation of more than 45,000 Kelowna residents, destroyed more than 300 homes and many businesses, and resulted in three deaths.

One group of surveyed homeowners from Kelowna did not lose their homes but were at risk of future wildfires because they lived in or near highly wooded areas similar to places where fires recently occurred. This group experienced what researchers call a post-exposure letdown.

These residents actually felt safer after the fires because they perceived themselves to have been the victims of an unfortunate low-probability event, and that the worst was over. As a result, people experiencing a letdown were unlikely to invest in costly and/or time-consuming measures to lower their future risks or to consider response strategies for future wildfires.

Contrasting sharply with the ‘post-exposure letdown’ was the feeling reported by the residents of Vernon, a community 32 miles north of Kelowna that was not affected by the fires but is situated in a similar urban-wildland interface area.

They reported what researchers call ‘post-exposure wake-up,’ characterized by greater risk awareness, heightened risk perception, and a strong desire to take action to better understand and lessen future exposure.

Individuals who experienced this were most likely to ensure that their homes had fire shelters and trimmed shrubs, bushes and trees to prevent encroachment upon homes. Members of this group also were likely to move to a different location.

‘There’s no doubt residents in California are experiencing the same reactions,’ said Louie Rivers, science assistant to NSF’s decision, risk and management program. ‘Some people will take appropriate action to protect against future wildfires and some will rebuild on the same spot and take no action.’

Perhaps not all that surprising.  One human tendency is to see the misfortunes of others as due to their unique foolishness or their unique bad luck.  At first, while danger is present, we may feel terror at uncertainty, but when the danger has passed and we are unhurt, this is often quickly replaced by a cockiness bred by the false doctrine that what did happen was bound to happen.  In other words, it was not mere good luck that we survived, but in fact it was inevitable in retrospect that we would survive, based on the evidence that we in fact did survive.  Those who are more removed from events do not experience the same initial terror nor the resulting need to concoct justifications that explain one’s survival while others similarly situated perished.


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One Response to Disaster ‘wake up’ v. disaster ‘let down’

  1. Erin

    Who knew there was an actual scientific name for this? I can attest to this anecdotally here at my insurance agency in the San Francisco Bay Area. By and large, our southern California policyholders who “survived” the recent firestorm feel, WHEW missed that one! while our local policyholders are scrambling to make sure they have enough coverage on their homes.