Why do people stay in disaster-prone cities?

Home among the ruins. Image: Rhona Wise/EPA.

The 2017 hurricane season has brought unprecedented destruction to the Caribbean and southern United States. As millions of people around the world have watched these events unfold from afar, no doubt some have found themselves wondering why people continue to live in places under threat from natural disasters – and even return to rebuild these places after they’ve been destroyed.

As a senior lecturer in government and public policy, I take a strong interest in these matters. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated portions of the US Gulf Coast in 2005, I conducted a survey of people who survived those hurricanes, as well as those who had followed the media coverage from other hurricane-prone areas in the US. My research offers three key findings, which help to explain the way people deal with disasters.

1. Trust matters

I found that people decide where to live in part based on how much trust they have in their public officials. If they trust the public officials and disaster managers in a particular community, they are more likely to continue living there after a disaster, because they believe the managers will do a good job in future crises.

This trust is continually built (or eroded) based on the performance of public officials in emergencies. The more positive contact people have with public officials, the more likely they are to trust them to do their jobs. Receiving aid swiftly from temporary distribution centres, or getting help over the phone from aid personnel, increases our trust in the people and agencies supplying that aid.

This means that people tend to have higher trust in their local officials, with whom they are more likely to come into direct contact. Even if trust declines in national officials due to their behaviour or performance, it will not influence someone’s choice of where to live if they believe their local officials will still do a good job in future crises.

So though it is somewhat counter-intuitive, I found that even after incredibly destructive disasters, good experiences with public officials actually strengthen citizens’ resolve to live in threatened areas.

2. You can’t imagine what it’s like

As outsiders, it can be confusing to see people return to rebuild amid devastation. Using the same survey, I compared what the hurricane survivors actually did, thought and felt to what outside observers predicted they would do, think and feel in similar situations. It turns out that when we imagine ourselves in situations seen in the media, we predict that we will behave in drastically different ways to the people who are actually experiencing them.

This is due, in part, to a natural tendency to fear events that are incredibly damaging – even if those events are highly unlikely to occur. A classic example is that many people are afraid of air crashes but not of car crashes, even though the probability of an aircraft crashing is much lower than that of a car.

Cause for alarm? Probably not. Image: HooLengSiong/Flickr/creative commons.

When presented with a hypothetical situation such as a hurricane, we often imagine the worst-case scenario: that our homes will suffer much more damage than the average and that our lives will suffer far more disruption than even the worst hurricanes in history have caused.

Research tells us that the media coverage of such events is partly to blame for this. Many outlets will focus on the most shocking or evocative images and stories, in order to keep viewers’ attention.

This combination of factors mean that outsiders tend to believe that, faced with such a scenario, they would take extreme action – such as never returning to their homes. But in reality, many more people opt to return to their homes and rebuild than those who choose to move away.


3. It just feels like home

When asked why people live where they do, both survivors and observers homed in on two answers. As one might expect, jobs and employment are important to people’s choice of where to live. But many choose where to live because “it just feels like home”. This sense of place compels people around the world to live where they do.

The longer a person’s family has lived in a particular area, the more likely that person is to return home after being evacuated. Likewise, the stronger their ties to church communities, neighbours and local economic activities, the more likely that person is to try to go back.

These personal considerations are difficult to quantify – but they mean that future threats do not factor as highly into people’s decision to return and rebuild as outsiders might think. So, you may look on from afar and wonder how anyone would want to rebuild a devastated area. You may even try to put yourself in the place of survivors – and still believe that you would never react the same way.

The ConversationBut my work shows that the ties that bind people to their homes are stronger than we typically imagine. So, if it comes to the point where communities need to be moved out of harm’s way, the answer lies not in highlighting the threat of disaster. Instead, it’s crucial to create governments which survivors can trust – and places where they can feel truly at home.

Gina Yannitell Reinhardt, Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.