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Disaster evacuationPsychology holds key to getting people out before disaster strikes

By Elizabeth Newnham, Rex Pui-kin Lam, and Satchit Balsari

Published 13 October 2017

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. Recent hurricanes, floods, bushfires and earthquakes have highlighted the significant potential for mass trauma. Yet we know relatively little about the psychology of decision-making in dangerous conditions. Evacuation is a key strategy for keeping city residents safe. Yet our study identifies several barriers to evacuation in high-density cities. Importantly, psychological factors could affect decision-making in these situations.

Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and intense. Recent hurricanes, floods, bushfires and earthquakes have highlighted the significant potential for mass trauma. Yet we know relatively little about the psychology of decision-making in dangerous conditions.

The focus of this year’s International Day for Disaster Reduction, 13 October, is the second target in the United Nations’ Sendai Framework: reducing the number of people affected by disasters by 2030. To achieve this, governments and organizations must work with communities to ensure effective disaster preparedness and response.

Evacuation is a key strategy for keeping city residents safe. Yet our study, conducted in Hong Kong and recently published in the International Journal of Public Health, identifies several barriers to evacuation in high-density cities. Importantly, psychological factors could affect decision-making in these situations.

High risk, low evacuation readiness
The combination of climate change and increasingly urbanized populations has elevated the risk of large and complex natural disasters for cities.

Hong Kong is predicted to be at significant risk of a climatic disaster in the next ten years. Despite this, in our city-wide assessment, only 11% of residents surveyed reported feeling prepared to respond to a natural disaster.

Timely evacuation in emergencies can be critical for survival. It ensures vulnerable members of society are safe and have access to medical and social support.

However, people are not always willing and able to leave their homes. In our study, two out of every five people identified a reason that would stop them evacuating.

The most commonly reported barrier was not knowing where to go. A smaller proportion reported disability or mobility issues that limited their capacity to evacuate quickly. This is particularly important for older people, families with young children, and residents of high-rise buildings. Others were concerned about theft and looting should they leave their homes.

Similar studies from Australia, Japan, and the United States suggest these barriers are not limited to Hong Kong.

How does psychology come into it?
To respond adequately to an emergency, people must believe their actions will be effective.

While disaster information is often communicated objectively (for example, the prediction of a bushfire’s speed and direction), we interpret these messages in light of our experiences and circumstances. Once we recognize the presence of a threat, we are then able to implement strategies to reduce the risk of harm.