Hurricanes are a fact of life for coastal areas of Southeastern United States, and remarkably so for residents of the gulf coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama where several major storms have struck in recent decades. In the wake of Frederic, Ivan, and Katrina, individuals continue to live in these vulnerable areas and some refuse to evacuate when new storms approach. The proposed investigation will examine risk communication about hurricanes for decision-makers and residents in these vulnerable areas.
Otway (1992) writes that “the main product of risk communication is not information, but the quality of the social relationship it supports” (p. 227). The current project focuses on the connections among groups that engage in the risk communication process: forecasters, government officials, and media representatives (referred to collectively as decision-makers or experts) and the general public. Two studies will examine dimensions of risk communication among these groups at the onset of a hurricane.
Study 1 will conduct personal interviews with forecasters, government officials, and media representatives in the CSP area of Louisiana. Experts will describe communication difficulties and suggest strategies for improving communication. A thematic analysis of the interviews will examine how expert institutions manage their authority in making decisions at the onset of a hurricane crisis, whether experts are aware of issues of credibility and trust, and how they balance clarity, complexity, and ambiguity when reporting a crisis event.
Study 2 will be a telephone survey of coastal residents (N = 500) focusing on hurricane knowledge, information sources, credibility, anxiety, self-efficacy, evacuation and relocation decisions, previous experiences with hurricanes (i.e., Katrina), and demographic characteristics. Statistical analysis will test predictions including whether knowledge is associated with greater self-efficacy; moderate anxiety predicts better planning than low anxiety; and residents who experienced Katrina have more anxiety and better evacuation plans than those who did not.
These studies will result in a list of recommendations and best practices for risk communication that will be sent to the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness as well as Louisiana forecasters, parish officials, and media representatives. This list will be distributed to comparable groups in Mississippi and Alabama. An additional component of the outreach/education plan is designed to introduce high school students to the human components of weather disasters - knowledge, planning, and decision-making. This project will create two new lesson plans for the Southern Regional Climate Center at http://www.srcc.lsu.edu/links/education/http://www.srcc.lsu.edu/links/education/and for a web portal being developed by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance Resilience Team.
Expected impacts of this project include the improvement of risk communication for decision-makers and the public. By providing a list of recommendations and “best practices,” this project hopes to have an ameliorative effect on this communication. Government officials and media representatives should be better able to target messages to the general public. Understanding the nature of these relationships will allow decision-makers to construct more effective messages to encourage residents to take precautionary measures. High school students will become a link in a community-based communication outreach program.
- To examine how decision-makers and end users manage their communication about a crisis;
- To identify strengths and weaknesses in the communication system;
- To test hypotheses about the relationships among knowledge, anxiety, credibility, past experience with hurricanes, demographic characteristics, and future decision-making;
- To develop a list of “best practices” and recommendations for improving risk communication in coastal communities based on Strengths and weaknesses in the current system, and the characteristics of specific communities in the coastal population (e.g., demographic groups, those who relocated after Katrina, or individuals with high anxiety).
Study 1 will interview decision-makers including the Louisiana state climatologist and director of the Southern Regional Climate Center, members of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), Louisiana parish (county) officials, and media representatives in southeastern Louisiana. We will ask them about their responsibilities when hurricanes occur, the source of their information, whom they talk with about approaching storms, their communication difficulties, and issues of credibility and clarity. Decision-makers will also make suggestions for improving decision-making.
Study 2 will be a telephone survey of residents in southeastern Louisiana. Questions will address their level of knowledge about hurricane terminology; planning and decision-making when a storm approaches; anxiety about hurricanes; experiences with previous storms (i.e., Katrina); factors that influence where they live; and demographics.
Based on information collected from the studies, the researchers will create (1) a list of best practices to be shared with decision-makers, (2) lesson plans about hurricanes and decision-making for high school teachers and students, (3) news stories for the general public, and (4) research reports for the academic community.
Hurricanes are a fact of life for coastal areas of Southeastern United States, and remarkably so for residents of the gulf coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama where several major storms have struck in recent decades. Individuals continue to live in these vulnerable areas and some even refuse to evacuate when new storms are approaching. The proposed investigation examines risk communication about hurricanes and hurricane preparedness for decision-makers and residents in these particularly vulnerable areas.
Over the past two decades communication scholars have written extensively in the area of risk communication, including a recent surge of work in the wakes of the terrorist attacks associated with 911 and Hurricane Katrina. Katrina presents a rich case study because of the virtual consensus that both the storm and the ensuing crisis were badly handled by emergency organizations, media, and the public. Guion, Scammon and Borders (2007) note that this particular failure mandates an “exploration of how these circumstances affected people’s confidence and trust in emergency management personnel and how they affected people’s sense of self-efficacy for dealing with the disaster” (p. 30).
Much of the literature surrounding risk communication examines instrumental ends. The focus of this work is upon preparing organizations to meet the challenges presented by disaster with strong attention to detail and planning (Samansky, 2002). Otway (1992) writes that “the main product of risk communication is not information, but the quality of the social relationship it supports” (p. 227). Expert communities must move away from purely technical understandings of the events and toward one that recognizes both the cognitive and emotional levels implicated in situations where property and lives may be at stake. Experts must be sensitive to individual characteristics of the audience and adapt to the interactive nature of communication in crisis situations in order to maintain relationships with the general public.
During a crisis, the general public turns to the media and, in particular, “breaking news” (Miller, 2006) because they are the only institutions that can collect massive amounts of information and disseminate it quickly (Graber, 1984). Several important issues affect the general public’s processing of information during a crisis event.
One issue is that the public does not fully understand the nuanced meanings associated with scientific jargon provided by the media (e.g., the difference between watches and warnings). Second, the level of anxiety created by the negative news may interfere with information processing by influencing individual ability to solve problems, make decisions, and respond appropriately and in a timely manner (e.g., Ellis & Ashbrook, 1988; Eysenck, 1982; Harris, Hancock, & Harris, 2005). At the same time, a certain amount of anxiety may increase individuals’ processing motivation and compensate for capacity reduction (Sengupta and Johar, 2001). Anxiety is also be mediated by self-efficacy, an individual’s belief in having a plan of action for dealing with a crisis (Seeger, 2006; Witte, 1994).
Individual differences including sex, age, race, and socioeconomic status also influence information processing (Edwards & Hamilton, 2004). Women are more engaged in decision-making in crisis events and younger and more affluent consumers are more likely to access newer media. African-Americans are more suspicious of information from government sources. Of special interest to the current investigation is previous experience with hurricanes. These include relocating temporarily or permanently following Katrina and now being close to or distant from family and lifelong friends. These past experiences can be expected to influence anxiety, planning, and decision-making.
In sum, the literature surrounding the study of risk communication highlights the importance of examining how experts (forecasters, government officials, and media representatives) manage their authority at the onset of a hurricane, whether they are aware of issues of credibility and trust, and how they balance features of clarity and complexity when reporting a crisis event. This literature further suggests the importance of examining decision making, planning, anxiety, self-efficacy, and individual differences (sex, age, race, socioeconomic status, and previous experiences) as factors affecting the general public when dealing with information about a crisis event.