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Disasters Alter our Perception of Risk

Mary King, a member of the soci­ology and anthro­pology fac­ulty, is an expert on how com­mu­ni­ties and indi­vid­uals weigh danger and risk when making deci­sions. She says that a major dis­aster, such as the recent flooding along the Mis­sis­sippi River or the dev­as­tating tor­nado in Joplin, Mo., forces a com­mu­nity to reex­amine its per­cep­tion of risk as it works to recover from a tragedy.

Does a dis­aster bring people together? Or does it create fur­ther divisions?

It depends. There are many, many instances of people who, in the after­math of a dis­aster, behave extremely coop­er­a­tively. This tends to happen when there are no vis­ible signs of relief coming. They tend to really work with their neigh­bors, work with the people sur­rounding them to allo­cate the imme­diate needs of the group. In New Orleans after Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina, there were instances where people helped to get for­mula and dia­pers to infants and helped to get water for elderly people.
But that is not always the case. In New Orleans after Hur­ri­cane Kat­rina, there were also some who attacked people they didn’t know.

Why are some com­mu­ni­ties, or mem­bers of a com­mu­nity, able to recover more quickly from a dis­aster than others?

All the inequal­i­ties that exist in these par­tic­ular instances before a dis­aster just get exac­er­bated after one. In the after­math of those dis­as­ters, ques­tions emerge: Why are some neigh­bor­hoods pre­served while some are not? Why is one house rebuilt while another is not? You’d like to say that these com­mu­ni­ties are going to come together, and in some ways they will. But some inequal­i­ties are going to be fur­ther dis­played and exac­er­bated by this kind of event.
If I’m wealthy and I lose a home, I might have insur­ance or some other means and I can start over. But if I’m less than wealthy, if I’m a person who is strug­gling and I lose my job and I’m injured and my house is destroyed, I’ve lost every­thing. How a dis­aster hap­pens may cause more inequality in the end.

How does a community’s per­cep­tion of a dis­aster change after a dev­as­tating event occurs?

Risk evolves as a social con­struct within a larger notion of society, in which people hold each other mutu­ally account­able. When some­thing unex­pected hap­pens, people tend to feel really betrayed by the insti­tu­tions that are sup­posed to pro­tect them, even though that’s an imag­i­nary safety net that we all walk around in.
The idea of risk evolves in the after­math of a dis­aster. Before a dis­aster, risk exists solely as some­thing that has to do with chance. People might say, “It was God’s will,” or what­ever. But a dis­aster really changes how people per­ceive risk in the after­math. People have to be held accountable.

– By Matt Collette

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