An explosive wildfire closed down dozens of miles of a major California freeway. The Delta Fire erupted Wednesday afternoon and within hours devoured nearly 8 square miles on both sides of Interstate 5 near the Oregon state line. (Sept. 6)
Will repeated exposure to vivid scenes of natural disaster — Western wildfires, a global heat wave, Hawaiian volcano eruptions, the 2017 hurricanes’ anniversary and a suddenly active 2018 season — finally turn America into a go-bag nation, prepared for calamity and ready to flee it?
Experience counsels skepticism. So does human nature.
The sight of a 30-story-high wave of fire consuming a Colorado subdivision, or a California “fire tornado” as long as three football fields, may rivet a national audience. But it probably won’t change national attitudes about how to prepare for an emergency or when to evacuate.
Experts say people aren’t really motivated by disaster until it comes to, or through, their door. “I don’t know what it’ll take,’’ says Jay Baker, a retired Florida State University geographer who has studied evacuation behavior, “but disaster scenes are not enough.’’
Take the case of Lauren Sand.
When she was a kid her family built a house on the west side of Los Angeles. This was shortly after the Bel Air Fire of 1961, one of worst wildfires in California history.
When she moved into the neighborhood, the hillsides were still charred. On the next ridge, a row of chimneys marked where houses had stood before the fire.
As an adult, Sand created Grabbit the rabbit, a cartoon mascot for emergency preparedness. She marketed Grabbit-themed products, such as a kids’ backpack stuffed with necessities for a quick escape.
But last December, when a pre-dawn wildfire came roaring toward the same home where she grew up, Sand was taken by surprise. She learned of the fire only when a friend saw it from the freeway and called to warn her.
Sand grabbed her laptop, purse, phone and some papers, and hopped into her car. When she looked in the mirror, she saw a wall of black smoke rolling down the street. She gunned her Prius like it was a Maserati.
She escaped, but without a coat, toothbrush, cherished family records and photos, and the architectural plans for her house (which, unlike several on the street, was spared). She left the pool uncovered and found it, when she was able to return three days later, filled with ashes.
Grabbit would not be impressed.
A land of natural hazards
America is riddled with fault lines and bordered by storm-tossed oceans, with two great north-south mountain ranges but none running east-west to keep Arctic air from flowing south and tropical air from going north.
There are hurricanes in the Southeast and nor’easters in the Northeast; tornadoes on the lower Plains and blizzards on the upper Plains; earthquakes and volcanoes along the Pacific Coast, which also is vulnerable to tsunamis; sinkholes and lightning in Florida; avalanches in the Rockies and flash floods in the Appalachians; hail from Minnesota to Texas and ice storms from Wyoming to Maine; lake-effect snow from the Great Lakes and the Great Salt Lake; and monsoons in Arizona.
In the first half of this year, six natural disasters each caused at least $1 billion damage and killed a total of 36 people. This came after 2017, the costliest year on record. It included California’s Wine Country fires, which killed 44 and destroyed 10,000 homes; Washington State blazes that dumped ash on Seattle like snow and pushed the air quality index in Spokane to “hazardous;’’ and three hurricanes — Harvey, Irma and Marie — so bad their names were retired.
Global warming makes wildfires hotter and probably will make hurricanes bigger. And the number of people living in harm’s way, including active earthquake and volcano zones, is increasing.
Yet, as FEMA administrator Brock Long observed this year, America lacks a “culture of preparedness.’’
We mostly don’t stock up on batteries, candles and water; we don’t prepare a family emergency plan or buy a hand-cranked radio; we don’t listen carefully to warnings and often don’t understand them when we do.
Or obey them. A survey in Florida after Hurricane Irma by Mason-Dixon polling found that only 43% of those under mandatory evacuation orders actually evacuated.
A 2015 study by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University found that two-thirds of Americans said they were not prepared to evacuate in an emergency. But Irwin Redlener, the center’s director, believes the situation is actually worse.
Sometimes, when he’s speaking to groups of emergency preparedness specialists, he’ll ask how many have a personal or family evacuation plan. Only a few hands go up, and most of their plans turn out to be half-basked.
Redlener thinks he knows why: It’s hard. A plan sounds like a good idea until, say, you face the question of what to do about your kids at school in case of a disaster. Do you go get them? Does your spouse? Traveling could be risky, so what are the school’s plans in an emergency? And how do you find out?
Suddenly, you notice the lawn needs mowing.
Last year two Wharton business school professors, Howard Kunreuther and Robert Meyer, published The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters. They identify six unconscious biases that undercut our ability and willingness to prepare.
1. Myopia: We focus on the short term and have difficulty understanding long-term consequences, such as the 100-year flood.
2. Amnesia: We forget the past. We buy a condo in complex built where a storm once blew away a shopping center.
3. Inertia: We do what we’re doing until something drastic happens, when it’s too late. See New Orleans and Katrina in 2005.
4. Selectivity: We don’t look at all the information, or simplify to the point of inaccuracy. If we have an emergency check list, we lose interest after covering a few items, without making sure they were the most important.
5. Herding: We make choices based on what the other person is doing. And so we both wind up treading water.
6. Optimism: This most American of traits leads us to underestimate risk, ignore worst-case scenarios and think bad things will only happen to others. It’s a great attitude for someone starting a business, not so much for someone living in a flood zone.
There are others factors, such as cost. Some people living in disaster-prone areas don’t move because they can’t afford to. Even assembling a comprehensive go-bag can be prohibitively expensive for some families.
And there’s always sheer ignorance. Many people living along the New Jersey coast during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 had no idea what hurricanes do to barrier islands until they found their roads clogged with four feet of sand.
A hard habit to change
Viral internet images and nonstop TV news coverage of this year’s disasters and disaster anniversaries have inspired some hope that Americans will begin to focus more on preparing for emergencies, rather than just reacting to them.
But Baker, the evacuation expert, says there’s little evidence that evacuation behavior is influenced by such things.
In 2005 he was conducting a survey of public evacuation attitudes on Long Island when Katrina struck New Orleans. He assumed that news of the disaster would ruin his study, skewing Long Islanders’ attitudes artificially and temporarily. Instead, he got the same kinds of responses after the storm as before it.
He says most people won’t change unless they’ve experienced something like a living room with six feet of water. But many Americans never face anything more perilous than a thunderstorm or a blizzard.
A New York Times analysis this year of Small Business Administration data concluded that a relatively small part of the country has sustained most of the damage from major natural disasters; about 90% of the losses occurred in ZIP codes with less than 20% of the population.
The Wharton professors called their book The Ostrich Paradox because of a common misimpression. The bird reacts to danger not by sticking its head in the sand — the way many humans deal figuratively with the prospect of natural disaster — but by running at speeds of up to 43 mph.
That was about how fast Lauren Sand was driving when she fled the wildfire last December. Now, despite the expert pessimism, she thinks attitudes can change. “Everyone feels vulnerable,’’ she says, “not invincible anymore.’’
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