Hurricane Florence

Photo by Travis Long/The News & Observer/TNS/Sipa USA

The Ostrich Paradox: Why Do Some People Underprepare For Hurricanes?

September 13, 2018 - 5:50 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- Many coastal residents in the Carolinas have evacuated as Hurricane Florence approaches, but as is the case with every hurricane, some have decided to ride it out.

Why are there always holdouts? Professor Robert Meyer of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has been looking into the phenomenon of people underpreparing for natural disasters, which he calls “the ostrich paradox.”

“That’s basically the idea that often when we think about the way in which people prepare for disasters or big storms or that type of thing, people tend to bury their heads in the sand, and we can draw the analogy to an ostrich, but actually, ostriches are amazingly good at preparing for disaster. They don’t actually put their heads in the sand and so forth,” Meyer told WCBS 880’s Joe Avellar and Michael Wallace. “And so in some sense, the paradox is that ostriches are actually incredibly good adapters to risk, whereas people actually tend to be poor adapters to risk.”

It is happening again with Hurricane Florence. Despite threats of 13-foot storm surge and 40 inches of rain, some people have decided to stay put.

“Some of these homes here near downtown Wilmington are back from the Civil War days; pre-Civil War days, so they’ve been around here a long time,” said CBS News Correspondent Jim Krasula. “A lot of these old buildings, people feel that they’re safe in them; they can withstand these storms.”

Meyer said the attitude reflects an unrealistic optimism among human beings.

“I think that most people down there probably take the Weather Service advice that a storm will be coming, but they think that most of the damage is going to affect other people and not themselves. It’s easy to imagine other houses getting wrecked, but it’s really kind of hard to imagine that you’re the one who’s actually going to suffer from it,” he said.

Specifically when it comes to hurricanes, people often think about the wind rather than the other often more severe effects such as rain and flooding.

“People really think of these things as wind events rather than rain and flood events, and so often, it’s the case that when storms are coming in, they hear it’s always a Cat 5, a Cat 4, and then they hear, ‘Oh, it’s been downgraded a Cat 2, then I don’t have to worry about it so much.’ Actually, it turns out that for most storms, most of the damage; most of the deaths actually come from flooding, and particularly this is true inland, where you have a lot of rain events,” Meyer said, “so there’s a lot of misperceptions as to what hurricanes actually do, and it’s really the water and the flooding that people have to be worried about.”

The other issue is that psychologically, people do not know exactly what to do to prepare for a natural disaster, Meyer said.

“We think that we’re going to come out top in all these things. And also, if we’re not sure what to do, we go ahead and look to see what our neighbors are doing, and of course, they’re just as optimistic as we are, and so basically, we collectively lead ourselves off a cliff,” he said.

Meyer wrote his book on the subject, “The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters,” with fellow Wharton professor Howard Kunreuther. The book was published last year.