Survivors Meet the Storm

December 6, 2014 · 0 comments

As  Typhoon Hagupit (Ruby) headed their way this weekend, Filipinos began to show they were a people far too experienced in the ways of typhoons.

Anxiety mixed with prudence. 500,000 people evacuated to safer quarters. Many residents of Tacloban–the city hardest hit by last year’s disastrous Typhoon Haiyan—took shelter in the local stadium. Others stocked up with food and other supplies. The city’s deputy mayor told the BBC, “It’s stirring up a lot of emotions in our hearts and bringing back so many painful memories.”

Those who study severe weather warnings are increasingly noticing this phenomenon: whether by fear or familiarity, people with prior experience have a peculiarly complex reaction to impending severe weather.

For example, a succession of well predicted tornadoes hit central Oklahoma within a short span in May 2013. During the third outbreak of that period, public reaction went awry. Before meteorologists could warn of the dangers of fleeing by car, residents hit the roads and caused potentially catastrophic traffic jams. The spontaneous evacuation, unlike any seen previously for a tornado, exposed the public to great risks.

In a paper to be presented at the AMS Annual Meeting next month at the Phoenix Convention Center (Wednesday, 7 January, 11:15 a.m., Room 226AB), Julia Ross and colleagues will analyze the effects of experience on the public’s “freak out” response to these tornadoes.

Quoting a recent paper by Silver and Andrey in the AMS journal, Weather, Climate, and Society, Ross et al. note that direct experience with hazards amplifies risk perception.  But their survey results show both reasoned and fear-driven reactions to the warnings—and possibly some regionally specific preferences as well.

(In the presentation to follow Ross et al. at the Annual Meeting, Lisa Dilling and colleagues analyze the opposite of a wary, seasoned public. They report on the effect of surprise in the Boulder, Colorado, floods last year.)

If anyone knows typhoons, it’s the people of the Philippines. Supertyphoon Haiyan, which killed 7,000 a year ago, was but one of six different tropical cyclones that have killed more than 1,000 Filipinos in the past decade.

This time around authorities say they’re aiming for zero casualties. But there’s more than just anxiety to deal with. It takes time to rebuild from a blow like Haiyan. A Haiyan survivor in Tacloban told the Associated Press, “I’m scared. “I’m praying to God not to let another disaster strike us again. We haven’t recovered from the first.”