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Yale Storm Study Shocker

It’s hurricane season – that time of year when shoreline residents worry about whether the Next Big One is going to hit. It turns out that some of us worry more than others, and for different reasons, including whether or not we’d evacuate our homes. In many cases, our behavior comes down to how the threats from major storms are communicated.

These are among the intriguing, and often surprising, findings in a new report, “Hurricane Perceptions of Coastal Connecticut Residents,” from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (YPCCC). The report describes public attitudes and behaviors toward past and future hurricanes and tropical storms based on a survey conducted last October of 1,130 households along the Connecticut coast. Residents were randomly selected from evacuation zones A and B, A being directly along the shoreline, B within a couple miles inland.

Even with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 and Superstorm Sandy a year later fairly fresh in many residents’ minds—including widespread damage to homes, trees, roads and beaches, power outages and, most unfortunately, several deaths—public attitudes today are sort of meh.

“We were surprised by the general lack of concern, given Irene and Sandy, and the fact that we’re overdue for another big storm,” says Jennifer Marlon, PhD, an associate research scientist with YPCCC and one of the principle investigators on the project.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Sea Grant Coastal Storm Awareness Program funded the survey and subsequent report. Money was allocated specifically to improve communications regarding hurricanes and tropical storms.

“Even though the forecasts are getting better and better, people aren’t changing their behavior,” Marlon says. “So they realized something was missing, and that missing link is finding out how to reach the people they want to reach and have them do what they want them to do—and it’s all about communication.”

These are some of the highlights of the report:

  • Only 21% of coastal CT residents in zone A say they would evacuate in the event of a Category 2 (100 mph winds) hurricane if they did not receive an official notice; about six in 10 (58%) say they would evacuate if advised to by an official.
  • About one-third (34%) believe it would be safer to stay at home during a Category 2 hurricane. Slightly less (31%) believe it would be safer to evacuate; and a final third (35%) say it’s a 50/50 decision what they would do.
  • Coastal CT residents generally underestimate storm impacts. About half (52%) say damage from past storms was more than they had expected, whereas 19% say it was less.
  • Only about one-third (31%) have evacuated at least once to avoid a storm in the past six years (since the beginning of 2009).
  • About 22% evacuated for Superstorm Sandy—27% in zone A, 11% in zone B. Of the zone A evacuees, 82% left before the storm arrived or just as it was arriving.
  • Zone A residents on average tend to be older, Caucasian, have higher household incomes, higher educational attainment levels and have made more storm preparations than zone B residents.
  • 70% of coastal CT residents are either unsure or unaware that their homes are in an evacuation zone (as defined by the Army Corps of Engineers).
  • Three-fourths (74%) have never seen a local evacuation map.

Of course, media coverage before, during and after hurricanes has become ubiquitous—local and national forecasters predicting landfalls, intrepid reporters standing outside in torrential rains and howling winds, post-storm interviews with residents amidst the ruins. Yet the hype doesn’t necessarily translate into behavior, especially if dire predictions don’t pan out, fueling ambivalence when the next storm approaches.

While virtually every town along the shoreline, plus the governor’s office, provides emergency preparedness information and has evacuation routes and procedures in place, making residents aware of that information can be another matter. So says the report. Nonetheless, because communication has been deemed so critical in all this, it’s interesting to sample some of what officials in towns and cities along coastal Connecticut have (or have not) done to better prepare and alert residents about storm threats and possible evacuations.

Old Saybrook, for example, “had a tremendous experiment in disaster communication during Superstorm Sandy,” says Police Chief Michael Spera. The town’s Emergency Operation Center established a first-of-its-kind Old Saybrook Storm Sandy webpage that posted critical information about potential flood conditions, evacuation notices, the town’s emergency shelter and other critical information. “We had information on the town’s Facebook page, we used social media, and even had a live blogger on our website,” he adds.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy’s office did not respond to a request for a reaction to the YPCCC study. But it’s telling that back in May, during Guilford’s Nick Fradiani Day celebration, Malloy told a Coastal Connecticut magazine reporter this: “When we tell [shoreline residents] to evacuate before a storm, they should listen.”

Coincidentally, shortly before the YPCCC report was issued, Malloy and the Department of Consumer Protection launched Business Finder (businessstatus.ct.gov), a web-based, mobile-optimized database that allows pharmacies, dialysis centers and oxygen suppliers to update information in real-time before and during an emergency, so the public can find a store or treatment center that is open and can meet their needs. “As we’ve learned from previous crises, we must always make every effort to use the latest technology and collaborate with the private sector to ensure the public health and safety,” Malloy said at the time.

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio says his city uses multiple methods of communicating with residents during storm emergencies, including reverse 911, print and television media, and direct contact by members of fire and police departments. “We continually look for ways to improve our outreach,” he says. “Most recently, we instituted round-the-clock storm emergency updates on the Office of Mayor Finizio Facebook page, and began providing more detailed and frequent updates on our city website for residents who are online but don’t use social media.”

YPCCC has not received much reaction from coastal towns’ officials, Marlon says, although she plans to contact them soon. The opportunity may well arise with the impending release of a second report delving deeper into the demographics of five target audiences living on the shoreline, based on their attitudes and perceptions of severe storms.

Combined, the two reports aim to provide an understanding of the public risks involved around this issue, Marlon says. “You can’t improve your message if you don’t know what people think in the first place. This is the first step. Then, if we can do more research, we may be able to test and design better messages, based on people’s actual needs.”

For the time being, Coastal Connecticut readers should keep their eye on the skies—and the media—this summer for storm news. And despite whatever you might have thought in the past, if you’re ordered to evacuate….

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By: Bob Woods

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