Does severe weather hype make people under-react?

Why We Fight (Evacuation Orders)
Rescue workers pull a woman from the water who was hanging onto the roof to escape the rising flood waters from Hurricane Katrina.
Rescue workers pull a woman from the water who was hanging onto the roof to escape the rising flood waters from Hurricane Katrina.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Sandy and Irene weren't the first two storms to receive overwhelming attention before touching down. As Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast in August 2005, reporters swarmed to New Orleans, and Mississippi while officials warned residents of low-lying areas to run for it. Yet many chose ride out the storm.

In hindsight, some will certainly argue that this was one storm that was under-hyped: evacuation orders in New Orleans, for example, didn't include a warning that levees could break as a result of the storm [source: Rosenthal]. Yet the Sandy experience -- with many residents of the hardest-hit areas also choosing to wait out the storm in spite of "mandatory" evacuation calls -- is a testament to the fact that at least some people may never believe the hype associated with severe weather.

There are a number of behavioral factors behind the decision to batten down the hatches when the "big one" comes, even when the experts are telling you to get the hell out of Dodge. The first is called "unrealistic optimism," which, as its handle suggests, refers to a super glass half-full mentality. Some people just don't think anything seriously bad can happen to them. "Motivated reasoning," meanwhile, is a related behavioral pattern in which a person simply dismisses all the signs that the worst-case scenario (a direct hit from a hurricane, for example) may happen [sources: Ablow, Sunstein].

Where the hype comes in is by causing what is called "availability bias." In other words, a person considering the risks of a certain event -- an oncoming storm, perhaps -- may compare it to past similar events. After a handful of overhyped weather patterns, people in the danger zones of an oncoming storm may start to assume that the Weather Channel is selling wolf tickets, so to speak. Also called "the availability heuristic," this phenomenon has been attributed to many victims of Katrina, whom after years of hype and misses, simply believed the storm would pass them by once again [source: Sunstein].

Whether it's the next Irene or another Sandy, hype isn't the only reason why some people may underestimate the next superstorm, but it certainly doesn't help.

Author's Note: Does severe weather hype make people under-react?

In case the last three pages haven't convinced you of the role of hype in severe weather preparation, maybe this personal anecdote will do the trick. As a Brooklyner preparing for Irene to touch down in the Big Apple last year, like most of my neighbors, I kind of freaked out a little bit. It was hard not to, not simply because of the non-stop news coverage but also because of the boarded up storefronts and bodegas with long lines and handwritten signs like "out of water" and "no more flashlights." So I stocked up on water, food, D batteries and, of course, beer. Meanwhile, my roommate mocked the panic and ordered two large pizzas. Then it happened. And by "it" I mean "nothing." When Sandy came knocking more than a year later, I had relocated to Washington D.C. This time around, I kept walking past the groceries and convenience stores and instead ordered a large pie.

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