Disaster relief

Those who expect the worst, prepare best

Date published: 2/25/2008 1:05:36 PM

Despite reports of citizens looting hospitals and shooting at rescue helicopters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, University of British Columbia’s Rajiv Jhangiani says disasters bring out the best in us.

“After a disaster, the media usually focuses on negative ways of adapting,” says the PhD student in psychology. “But typically, people act quite positively toward one another during emergencies, especially if they are prepared—physically and psychologically—to deal with them.”

Working closely with the City of Vancouver’s earthquake preparedness program, Jhangiani is studying why some people are more likely to prepare for disasters, and how cities can use this knowledge to prepare for the worst.

“Having an emergency plan and keeping supplies, such as clean water and canned food, on hand are important,” says Jhangiani. “But, we’ve found that whether someone reacts negatively or positively to a disaster situation has a lot to do with their expectations.”

For example, if you don’t believe a disaster could ever happen in your city, or you expect the government to save everyone within 24 hours—and it doesn’t happen—you feel deprived. The resulting frustration can lead to negative and even anti-social behaviour, he says. On the other hand, people who accept that a disaster could happen are better prepared—at least psychologically—to deal with it.

“But, human beings just aren’t the most rational creatures,” cautions Jhangiani. “And research has repeatedly shown that people living in disaster-prone areas are the least likely to believe a disaster will ever happen.”

As a result, he says, government and city officials must work hard to not only change people’s expectations, but also help them feel confident in their own ability to cope.

“Having a sense of control makes people more likely to prepare for disasters,” he explains. “To be effective, public messages need to be simple and straightforward. Overloading people with too much information doesn’t help.”

Messages also need to be targeted to specific audiences. A one-size-fits-all approach just isn’t logical, he says.

“You can’t ask a homeless person to keep an emergency kit.”

Overall, he says, Hurricane Katrina and last year’s tsunami created a lot of public interest in Canada about disaster preparedness. And governments all across the country should be using this new awareness to reach difficult audiences and help citizens prepare for the worst.

Rajiv Jhangiani’s research on disaster preparedness was supported by the Canada Graduate Scholarships Master’s program.