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Why Loving Your City Makes You Vulnerable in a Disaster

A new study shows that the more attached residents are to their city, the less likely they are to prepare for emergencies and disasters.

A resident checking in on neighbors after a flood in Summerville, South Carolina, on October 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

As any besotted adolescent can tell you, love makes you do dumb things. That may be true even when the object of your affection is the city where you live.

According to a recent study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, residents of the flood-prone city of Vibo Valentia, Italy, readily acknowledged that living where they did made them vulnerable to disaster. That didn't mean they were going to do anything about it. In fact, the more attached residents were to their town—signified by their agreement with statements such as "This is the ideal place for me” and "It would be very hard for me to leave this place"—the less likely they were to prepare for a future catastrophe by signing up for emergency preparation classes or pledging to gather supplies.

To be honest, most of us are bad at preparing for disasters. Every time a hurricane hits or a monster blizzard descends, some yahoo has to be rescued by emergency crews because he refused to evacuate or failed to stock necessary supplies. Only 28 percent of Americans have assembled the FEMA-recommended 72-hour kit, says a 2015 Chapman University survey—even though 86 percent of us think it would increase our chances of our surviving a natural or manmade disaster.

It'll never happen here

Why the disconnect between knowledge and action? Because all of us are prone to optimism bias—in this case the Lake Wobegon–style belief that our city is somehow better than all others, and therefore immune to disasters. The more we feel socially and emotionally connected to where we live, the more reckless our optimism bias tends to get. Yes, hurricanes and floods happen, we think, but in other places. Not here.

"Place attachment is a good thing," says Stefano De Dominicis, a psychology professor at Sapienza University of Rome, who co-authored the study about Vibo Valentia. "The more we attach to places, the more we act in favor of our places and of the related communities. Yet, in turn, at times we could be blind about some place-related issues."

City love is so blind, in fact, that we're reluctant to leave a place before a disaster happens, just as reluctant to leave it afterward, and cocky about our chances of surviving a worst-case scenario. "Even if people know there's a potential problem," says Daniel Aldrich, a professor of political science at Northeastern University and author of Building Resilience, "they're confident that their connections, their friends, their networks will help them through that problem."

But here’s the problem for cities that want residents to be prepared. Relying on one's social network for aid in an emergency isn't such a bad plan. Neighbors do help each other after disasters, a truth revealed after Hurricane Sandy, when nearly seven in ten storm victims received help from their neighbors—more than were helped by local or federal government or FEMA workers. "We obviously want people to evacuate, be prepared, and listen to instructions from those in authority," says Aldrich, "but the reality is that the person who didn't prepare but knows a guy with a generator…is better off by being connected than by being prepared."

Connection vs. preparation

Place attachment and preparedness don't have to be mutually exclusive. Most major U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, and Houston, operate Community Emergency Response Teams, which train volunteers in disaster management skills that can include everything from CPR to search and rescue. Nationwide, an estimated 600,000 people have signed up since the program’s inception in 1994. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, where the program is called NET, for Neighborhood Emergency Team, there are currently 736 active volunteers, with several hundred more expected after an upcoming training session. Who volunteers? People with a strong enough sense of community that they’re willing to become first responders for their neighbors.

Emphasizing sense of place and community is also the aim of San Francisco's Department of Emergency Management. In October 2013, on the anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the department launched SF72.org, a website that makes prosaic preparedness tasks—collecting flashlights and first aid kits, planning a post-disaster meeting spot—seem almost festive. "We believe in connection, not catastrophe," the website proclaims.

SF72 encourages residents to, say, stick a board game or a bottle of wine in the emergency pack so you can hang out with your neighbors in the event that you have to bust out the supplies. "Fear-based messaging was an obstacle to people becoming more prepared," says spokesperson Francis Zamora. The new strategy tries to eliminate the sense of ominousness from disaster preparedness, instead playing up residents' feelings of connection with the city.

The Department of Emergency Management is expanding their approach to other places, including cities in Kansas and Florida that have used the City72 toolkit to create their own version of the website. Yet the original SF72 manifesto couldn't be more rooted in a particular place:

"San Francisco is the fog, the farmer's market, the costume box in every closet. It's the $5 cup of coffee next to the $1 taco. . . This is our city. By living here, we've all embraced a way of life that's about being on the edge—of social change, technology, even nature. After all, the ocean, the hills and the fault lines are San Francisco, too."

Anywhere we choose to live involves a certain level of making ourselves vulnerable to disasters. When we really love a place, it's worth the risk. But that doesn't mean we have to be foolhardy about it.

About the Author

  • Melody Warnick
    Melody Warnick is a Virginia-based writer whose work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Redbook, O: The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, and Parents, among other magazines. She is the author of the forthcoming book This Is Where You Belong, which will be released in June 2016.