Natural Hazards Meeting Report

Communicating Hurricane Risks: Challenges and Recommendations

NOAA/Sea Grant Coastal Storm Awareness Program (CSAP ) Final Workshop; Newark, New Jersey, 26–27 May 2015

By , E. Christa Farmer, and Sharon Moran

Hurricane Sandy was one of the largest U.S. hurricanes on record; it affected an area home to more than 100 million people, killed 147, cut power to 8.5 million customers, and caused more than $60 billion in economic damages (data provided by the National Weather Service). Despite the enormous threat, advance warnings, and remarkably accurate forecasts, confusion reigned, and many coastal residents did not evacuate. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Sea Grant programs for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut funded 10 research projects to examine communication failures, people’s actions, and ways to address them.

This past May, officials from these three states held a workshop in Newark, N.J., to discuss the findings from the research projects. Key topics addressed included the differing perceptions among coastal residents about the safety of leaving versus staying; the public’s reliance on local officials for evacuation orders; issues with accessibility of shelters, transportation, and communications, especially for people with disabilities; voluntary versus mandatory evacuation notices; and the connection between past experience and behavior. Past storm experience, for example, informs but does not predict evacuation behavior because of differences in individual understandings.

Research experiments identified potential strategies to improve public compliance with emergency advisories. Guilt appeals about putting first responders at risk by staying may encourage people to evacuate an area, as can clear, concise information about likely impacts. In fact, saying explicitly that the toilet and shower won’t work may be a more effective message than referring to power or sewer outages alone. Publicizing the actions of authorities, such as evacuating their own families, also shows promise in promoting safer decision making.

“Voluntary” evacuation notices may actually reduce compliance levels, but emergency managers sometimes hesitate to issue mandatory evacuations because they cannot or are unwilling to enforce them. Increased preparedness is correlated with reduced risk perceptions, which means efforts to improve public readiness for hazards may have unintended consequences when evacuations are necessary.

At the meeting, presentations outlining the results of surveys and interviews also highlighted the importance of providing adequate resources and assistance to specific groups. These groups include single parents and the elderly, as well as people who perceive significant constraints on their evacuation options, such as those with health issues, those who lack resources, and people with pets.

Findings from the research, including a social media analysis and specific messaging recommendations, can be used to improve storm-related planning and communications. Brief descriptions of the research projects and investigators can be found on the New York Sea Grant site and in video interviews with Coastal Storm Awareness Program (CSAP) researchers.

The authors acknowledge NOAA, Sea Grant, CSAP principal investigators, the National Weather Service, and the many project stakeholders who supported this work.

—Jennifer R. Marlon, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; email: [email protected]; E. Christa Farmer, Geology, Environment, and Sustainability Department, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.; and Sharon Moran, Department of Environmental Studies, State University of New York Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse

Citation: Marlon, J. R., E. C. Farmer, and S. Moran (2015), Communicating hurricane risks: Challenges and recommendations, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO039443. Published on 18 November 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0