Why are natural disasters not “natural” for victims?

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  • with and recover from the event. This phenomenon presents particular challenges for those trying to

    Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119

    www.elsevier.com/locate/eiarunderstand the social impacts of such events because of the reflexive nature of such analysis. Often

    the social analyst or even the government agency manager must sort through such perceptions and

    behavior and (at least implicitly) make judgments about which assignments of responsibility may

    have some validity and which are largely the result of the psychology of the disaster itself. This

    article presents a conceptual framework derived largely from social psychology to help develop a

    better understand such perceptions and behavior. While no bmagic bulletQ formula for evaluating thevalidity of disaster victims claims is presented, the conceptual framework is presented as a starting

    point for understanding this particular aspect of the psychology of natural disasters.

    D 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    Keywords: Social psychological impact; Natural disaster; Responsibility; Victims perceptions; Conceptual

    frameworkWhy are natural disasters not bnaturalQ for victims?

    Yoshitaka Kumagaia, John Edwardsb, Matthew S. Carrollc,*

    aAkita International University, Yuwa-machi, Akita, JapanbDepartment of Psychology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97332, USA

    cDepartment of Natural Resource Sciences, Washington State University, Johnson Hall 183, P.O. Box 646410,

    Pullman, WA 99164, USA

    Received 30 August 2003; received in revised form 25 March 2004; accepted 28 June 2004

    Available online 19 March 2005


    Some type of formal or informal social assessment is often carried out in the wake of natural

    disasters. One often-observed phenomenon in such situations is that disaster victims and their

    sympathizers tend to focus on those elements of disasters that might have been avoided or mitigated

    by human intervention and thus assign bundueQ levels of responsibility to human agents. Often theresponsibility or blame is directed at the very government agencies charged with helping people cope0195-9255/$ -


    * Correspond

    E-mail adding author. Tel.: +1 509 335 2235; fax: +1 509 335 7862.see front matter D 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


    ress: carroll@mail.wsu.edu (M.S. Carroll).

  • 1. Introduction

    Natural disasters are a significant cause of dislocation and disruption in the lives of

    people and communities. In the US alone 65 major natural disaster declarations were made

    in 1998, while in 1999, 2000 and 2001, 50, 45 and 45 major natural disaster declarations

    were made respectively in the US (FEMA, 2003a). The financial costs are significant. For

    example, in 1998 $4.2 billion was spent on natural disasters in the US and $1.4 billion was

    spent in 1999 (FEMA, 2003b). Some form of social assessment is often conducted in the

    wake of natural disasters. Social assessment practitioners, however, are concerned with

    more than financial costs. Social assessment is concerned with the broader impacts of such

    events on the lives of individuals, families and communities.

    One of the complications that assessment practitioners and government agency

    managers face that is not an issue in assessments conducted by those in non-social

    disciplines is reflexivity. Put simply, what people believe about the cause of an event can

    have an impact on how they respond to and in some cases recover from the event. Perhaps

    the most famous example of this is the Buffalo Creek flood in West Virginia in 1972. At

    least one scholar who studied the aftermath of the flood concluded that the communities

    seeming inability to recover from the event had to do with the belief on the part of victims

    that human negligence (in this case on the part of a mining company) was to blame for the

    event (Erikson, 1976).

    Generally speaking, whether it is justified or not, blaming appears to draw energy away

    from recovery. For example, in the case of damage from forest fires in residential areas,

    Carroll et al. (in press) uncovered evidence of conflict within communities over whether to

    expend energy blaming the US Forest Service for the fire damage or to bmove onQ in therecovery process.

    Despite the obvious negative consequences associated with blaming in such situations

    and the sometimes overwhelming influence of non-human factors such as weather,

    climate, water flow. etc., it is widely observed that disaster victims tend to look for human

    agency in constructing their explanations of why their lives were disrupted by an event

    (Shaver, 1985; DeMan et al., 1985; Rochford and Blocker, 1991; Blocker and Sherkat,

    1992). This article attempts to provide a conceptual framework that addresses why natural

    disasters are often not perceived as bnaturalQ by people who are victimized by them butinstead are often regarded as having been caused by human agents. In some cases, the very

    parties who are charged with attempting to protect society from or to mitigate such events

    are seen as the agents responsible for the damage and disruption disasters create.

    Beyond conceptual development for its own sake, we believe such a framework will

    have practical applications including: (1) helping social impact assessment practitioners

    and employees of government agencies charged with attempting to prevent and/or mitigate

    the effects of disaster events understand why victims sometimes view the cause of and

    responsibility for disasters differently than they do; (2) encouraging relevant agency

    members to be aware of the importance of effective communication in the context of

    disaster events; and (3) helping agencies and social impact assessment practitioners to

    generate disaster preparation and mitigation plans that take into account the possibility of

    Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119 107(and hopefully the minimization of) inaccurate or oversimplified blaming by victims and

    observers. While this paper makes no claim of offering bmagic bullet solutions to the

  • problems generated by the dynamics we describe here, the authors hope this framework

    provides a starting point for understanding them as a first step toward solving the problems

    they create.

    As we noted above, an often-observed phenomenon among victims of natural disaster

    is that they often do not regard a natural disaster as bnaturalQ despite the fact that primaryagents of natural disasters are often uncontrollable natural forces. What is complicated

    about such situations and what leaves open the possibility of a variety of attributions about

    causation is the fact that human action (or inaction) can nearly always be said to be involved

    in disaster events. For example in the case of floods, perhaps flood control measures were

    in place (or not) and the flood happened anyway. Perhaps some actions upstream affected

    water levels; perhaps the weather report underestimated rainfall and the threat of flooding

    was not taken seriously. Causation of forest fires is particularly complicated. Was

    the cause of the fire the person who threw the cigarette out the car window or 75 years

    of fire exclusion in forest stands accompanied by resulting forest floor fuel buildup?

    Was the fire a natural event in the life of the forest and within the historic range of variability

    or was it the result of human carelessness or forest management malpractice?

    What often occurs in bnaturalQ disaster situations is that victims and observersoversimplify the bcausesQ of the event in such a way as to focus on those elements thatwere or bshould have beenQ within the realm of human control. Instead of painting acomplex causal picture that an objective analysis might suggest, they often simplify that

    picture and focus on the belief that the consequences of natural disasters are the result of

    human actions or inactions, and they assign primary responsibility for the damage and

    disruption to human agents. There are numerous examples of victims making these sorts of

    attributions. Victims of the La Conchita (Ventura County, CA) landslide believed that the

    La Conchita Ranch Companys farm practices caused the landslide, and consequently, they

    sued the ranch for damages (Polakovic, 1998). Although a lawyer for the La Conchita

    Company insisted that a lengthy heavy rainfall was the most direct cause of the landslide,

    victims did not regard it as the primary cause of the landslide. Blocker and Sherkat (1992,

    p.154) found that two-thirds of a group of flood-impacted survey respondents regarded the

    bflood as a technological disaster and assigned responsibility to government officials anddevelopment policies.Q

    Some victims of the Wenatchee Complex Fires of 1994 blamed the USDA Forest

    Service (USFS) because they believed that the agency had delayed its initial attack and had

    inadequate firefighting strategies (Daniels, 1997; Carroll et al., 2000). Although lightning

    ignited the fires, and their size and intensity were amplified by high winds and heat, some

    victims did not regard those natural forces as the primary causes of the damage (Carroll

    et al., 2000). Kumagai et al. (in press) discovered that some victims of the Butte Complex

    fires in northern California, which were started by more than 5000 lightning strikes,

    insisted that back fires set by firefighters in fighting the blaze burned their properties,

    despite the fact that there was no evidence for this.

    1.1. Two common assumptions

    Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119108The way in which such victims perceive natural disasters and who is responsible for

    their damage seems to be based at least in part on two assumptions commonly made

  • about such events. First, victims and potential victims often believe that society should

    be able to prevent most natural disasters by using technologies and skills to control the

    natural forces that trigger such events. This assumption appears to have become more

    dominant in current-day western thought than it was historically. As pointed out by some

    researchers, the assessment of causalities of natural disasters has changed significantly

    over the last centuries as modern technology advanced and the extent of human

    intervention in natural resources increased (Blocker and Sherkat, 1992). Historically,

    almost all natural disasters tended to be regarded as bacts of GodQ (McCaughey et al.,1994). Moreover, predicting where and when earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic

    eruptions would take place was almost impossible because devices such as seismographs

    had not been invented in those days. Therefore, there might not have been any candidate

    but bnatureQ as the primary cause of natural disasters during that era. However, theinvention of various technologies has dramatically improved societys ability to predict

    the occurrence or movements of natural disasters. Such technology, of course, cannot be

    the target of blame assignment. Instead, human agents who have invented and utilized

    such technology are often the target of blame by victims and those who sympathize with


    The second assumption is the widespread belief that government entities should protect

    the public from most any natural disaster. Thus alternative candidates for blame

    assignment by victims have emerged: government entities (and sometimes non-govern-

    ment entities) became objects of blame when individuals are victimized by natural disaster.

    It is more than a little ironic that the advancement of technology has made the distinction

    between natural and technological (human-caused) disasters less clear (Berren et al., 1980;

    McCaughey et al., 1994). bThe disaster agents, per se, have become less seen asdistinguishing factors as the control of nature is interpreted not only as within human

    ability, but also as societys responsibility,Q (Blocker and Sherkat, 1992, p.161). As Drabek(1986, p. 201) cogently points out, bthe American experience of the past three decadesseems to be one wherein God is losing ground very rapidly, and disaster victims engage in

    a blame assignation process.QThese two widely held assumptions ignore or downplay a number of realities.

    Regarding the first assumption, human agents can and do predict the occurrence of natural

    disasters to a greater extent than ever before by using modern technology. However, even

    the best equipped and trained technical experts cannot precisely predict when and how

    every natural disaster will take place. Regarding the second assumption, in the US, various

    levels of government agencies from local fire departments to the Federal Emergency

    Management Agency (FEMA) are established to deal with preparation, mitigation, rescue

    and restoration activities associated with natural disasters. In the practical world, those

    entities, however, cannot assume the burden for all responsibilities and activities related to


    In summary, the literature (i.e. Stallings, 1988; Wolensky and Miller, 1981)

    generally suggests that citizens appear to expect instantaneous reactions from

    governmental agencies during natural disaster events, which thereby puts such agencies

    in the position of becoming available for blame targeting by victims and their

    Y. Kumagai et al. / Environmental Impact Assessment Review 26 (2006) 106119 109sympathizers when such actions are not forthcoming in the manner and/or time frame


  • 2. Conceptual framework

    2.1. Overview

    Beyond the above-mentioned societal assumptions, is there a specific explanation of

    why people tend to attribute the causes of natural disasters to human agents generally and

    governmental agencies in particular? A significant body of work in the field of social

    psychology addresses the processes that guide peoples assessment of causation, blame,

    and responsibility. Such work typically falls under the auspices of attribution theory

    (Heider, 1958; Jones and Davis, 1965; Kelley, 1967). Attribution theory concerns the

    processes by which people understand the causes of events, the factors that influence those

    processes, and the consequences of making different types of attributions. Decades of

    work on attribution have yielded an enormous amount of empirical and theoretical work.

    The model presented in this paper is based largely on this work.

    Before proceeding it will be helpful to draw the readers attention to two key

    distinctions in the psychological attribution literature. Researchers in social psychology

    distinguish between internal and external attributions (e.g., Heider, 1958). Internal

    attributions are attributions to causes that reside in people, such as their personality traits

    or motivations. External attributions are attributions to causes that reside outside of people,

    such as situational factors. This distinction has been shown repeatedly to have important

    consequences for the persons behavior, thoughts, emotions, and well-being (e.g.,

    Buchanan and Seligman, 1995; Weiner, 1985). For instance, attributing the cause of a

    negative event to oneself (i.e., attributing to a cause wi...


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