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With the increase of natural disasters occurring in the world today in comparison to decades ago, individuals can perceive risk in different ways as a result of factors such as experience and trust. These different perceptions individuals have about risk can have positive and negative effects and can create or contribute to an increased vulnerability to that individual or to a community. While risk perception is based on factors different from individual to individual, there are ways to address the negative effects and to increase the publics overall risk perception as a whole.
Vulnerability in the context of disaster management can be defined as “the diminished capacity of an individual or group to anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural or man-made hazard. ” The severity of a natural disaster depends on both the physical nature of the event, and the social nature of the populations affected by the disaster. While a population can be affected by a natural disaster, different people have different vulnerability then others. Some human factors that contribute to vulnerability are; wealth, education, governance, technology, age, and gender.
Risk perception is the process of collecting, selecting, and interpreting signals about uncertain impacts of events, activities, or technologies. These signals can be from direct experiences, such as witnessing a natural disaster, or from indirect experiences, such as reading about a natural disaster in the news. Individuals judge risk based on mental models and other psychological mechanisms that are internalized through social and cultural learning, these are reinforced by other communication processes such as media reports and influences from other individuals. An individual’s perceptions may be different depending on the type of risk, the risk and social context, and the personality of the individual.
The Role of Direct and Indirect Experience Direct experience can have both a positive and negative effect on risk perception. If an individual has a direct experience with a natural disaster, they tend to overestimate the possible danger, while an individual without direct experience may underestimate the potential danger. Prior personal exposure to a natural disaster can provide an example of the threat and can demonstrate the potential future risk. Because of this, prior personal experience can be positively associated to a higher risk perception. An example of how a lack of direct experience can affect an individual’s risk perception is from a study done on landslides and risk perception. The study comprised of ten groups who were asked to do a survey. One group was made up from residents from Montrose, Australia. These residents were advised by Lillydale Shire that there was a high probability of a landslide occurring, and a high chance of loss of life if a landslide occurred. Even though the residents of Montrose were aware of the high probability of a landslide occurring, they still ranked a landslide hazard as a low probability in comparison to travel risks (air travel, traffic accident, etc. ) One reason for this is the lack of personal experience with landslide hazards. Although there are positive effects with direct experience on risk perception, there is also examples of negative effects. Individuals who have personal exposure to a natural disaster, but did not experience damages to property or personal injury are likely to believe that a future disaster will unlikely affect them, as a result of this, their risk perception decreases. By looking at both the positive and negative effects direct experience have on risk perception it shows that it is not the experience itself that shapes the individual’s perception, but the severity of the personal consequences they experienced with past events.
Indirect experiences include any source of media, education, and disaster witness accounts. Indirect experience can play a critical role for recalling prior personal experience or previously seen or heard indirect experience, as risk perception and awareness, which is at a high directly after a natural disaster, fade away over time. A common practice that is essential to motivate individuals and communities to take protective measures is to help people recall the experience of a past natural disaster. This “window of opportunity” can be used in risk education and communication.
The role of trust is another important factor for risk perception of natural disasters. In this context it is trust in scientific experts, authorities, and in the protective measures put in place. Trust is used as a method by individuals to reduce the need to make rational judgements based on information known by listening and following what experts and authorities say. This can result in a reduction of uncertainty, but if an individual has a lack of trust or that trust has been damaged, they may feel more at risk. An example of trust effecting individuals risk perception is if a community is protected by dikes or dams in the case of flood protection, individual’s perception of the likelihood or severity of a flood goes down, and as a result, so does their willingness to prepare for the possibility of a flood. Most people believe that it is the responsibility of authorities and governments to protect residents.
In recent months, there has been multiple hurricane events in the United States, the most recent being Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018. Before Hurricane Michael made landfall, mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders were issues in more than twenty-two counties on the Florida Golf Coast, while most people chose to listen to the warnings an evacuate, others did not. Reasons for this can vary, from evacuation not being a viable option financially, or due to other contributing factors, a false sense of security, or a lack of trust in experts and authorizes. When a mandatory evacuation order is released, it may not be a viable option or be difficult for individuals who are living below the poverty line, the elderly, or people with disabilities. These personal constraints lead to some individuals compromising their personal safety unless help or outside resources are available to them. These constraints increase the vulnerability for these populations as well as the people, such as first responders. For people who are living with limited financial resources, an evacuation due to a natural disaster can be even more devastating. Individuals may choose to stay because they feel that the financial stress and the uncertainty is not worth leaving their homes. As a result, this increases their vulnerability and the vulnerability of others. For the elderly, it can be difficult to evacuate because of the possibility that they have a large amount of equipment or medications they would need to take to maintain their health. This is a reason as to why this demographic tends to choose to not evacuate. With individuals who are living with disabilities or with loved ones with disabilities, I can be the same issue as the elderly. There might be a large amount of equipment that would need to be brought with them to maintain health or needed for daily activities. A false sense of security is another reason people might decide not to leave their homes in the event of an evacuation due to an impending natural disaster. Some people think that because they have a preparedness plan in place, or that they have experienced hurricanes before and have not sustained significant damage, that they will not be affected by an impending storm. Studies done on evacuation in response to hurricanes on the Gulf Coast report that large portions of individuals who decide to not evacuate were long-time residents of an area that had previously experiences hurricane impact.
In a similar report, Halpern-Felsher found that individuals who had experienced a natural disaster perceived that they are less susceptible to harm from future disasters then individuals who have not experienced one. When an evacuation notice is issued, it is essential that confidence in government institutions significantly increases the probability of public compliance. When individuals lack trust in experts and authorities, they may not take warnings or evacuation notices seriously, which in turn can make them more vulnerable to damages and personal injury, as well as increasing the vulnerability for others.
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