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School and Program Updates

South Florida: Risky Business – Why Americans Don’t Prepare for Disasters

Americans are a tolerant bunch. At least when it comes to natural disasters and the risks they pose.

Most of us — about 60 percent says the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — don’t have an emergency plan in place should something like a hurricane, tornado or wildfire hit. And the reason why, says Dr. Anthony Masys, a University of South Florida College of Public Health associate professor and director of global disaster management, humanitarian assistance and homeland security, is our skewed perception of risk and our tolerance for its potential consequences.

First, there’s perception.

Many non-meteorologist types view hurricanes as mostly a wind and rain event. Escape the fallen trees and downed power lines and you may think you’re safe.

But many catastrophic hurricanes (think Katrina, Sandy and Maria) produce devastating storm surge. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, 1,500 people lost their lives — many of them due directly or indirectly to storm surge, reported the National Hurricane Center.

“People contextualize disasters from different perspectives,” Dr. Masys noted, “and that can hide some risks. Hurricanes, to some, might be a high wind and rain event. That’s their mental model. But, in a natural disaster, you have to use scenario planning and explore the possibilities of what may take place and then develop a plan.”

Ask yourself where all that rain will go. Will there be a flooding risk? How does that affect the infrastructure? Will electricity be cut off? If so, will water get contaminated and be shut off? How will that affect you?

“Think of the unintended consequences that can loop back and impact you,” Masys cautioned.

Risk tolerance is another factor in our lack of disaster preparedness.

“Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” Dr. Masys explained. “Well, the opposite of that can be true as well. If we’re told a hurricane is coming and it’s a bad one and then it doesn’t hit or it doesn’t produce much damage, we start getting comfortable. We start thinking, ‘Yeah, they said that last time and I stayed and I was fine.’ We start building up a tolerance to the risk.”

The key to better disaster preparedness, Dr. Masys says, is better risk communication.

“When the government or an agency puts up a disaster warning, it’s important to articulate all the what-if scenarios and help people put them in context,” commented Dr. Masys. “If a disaster hits our region, here is what could occur [flooding, power outages, etc.], here is what we are doing to prepare and here is what individuals need to do to prepare. Run through the scenarios and have preparedness discussions. As has been said before, ‘Things that have never happened before happen all the time.’ Perspective is key.”

Setting up a disaster preparedness plan:

Story by Ms. Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health