Take a glass of water and pour it out. This is the sound that Mary Anne Trasciatti heard for hours during and after her hometown of Long Beach, N.Y., was hit by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. She said water and raw sewage poured in through doors, the chimney and the electrical outlets.
“I had this terrifying feeling that I couldn’t save my children. So we went to the top of the stairs and clung onto each other hoping that, as high as it went, it wouldn’t come to the top of the stairs. And it didn’t,” she said.
Her family was part of the 90 percent that did not evacuate until after the storm hit. What she didn’t expect at that terrifying moment was that it would inspire research that could someday save others.
After being displaced for more than a month, Trasciatti’s family came back to rebuild their house from the ground up with the help of friends and family. She noticed that all these strong men were helping neighbors rebuild and medical professionals were nursing people back to health. Trasciatti, an associate professor in the Department of Rhetoric at Hofstra University, wondered what she do in the face of a natural disaster. She decided to create an archive of stories of those affected by the storm.
Trasciatti’s documentation became part of the Coastal Storm Awareness Program, 10 projects to find out how communication affects responses to storm warnings in an effort to minimize deaths and injuries. The projects are part of collective research funded by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration after the devastation Hurricane Sandy left behind.
This research was especially important to Trasiciatti because she lived it. She set a camera on a tripod and put up fliers. The results were overwhelming.
“I understand that narrative provides a really important framework for making sense of experience and can be very cathartic to tell your story,” she said. “But sometimes it was more harmful than helpful.”
As some people told their stories, they experienced their trauma over again, and it would remind her of what she had been through.
Her mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer when they were rebuilding the house.
“For me it was rebuilding the house, nursing a dying woman, and that is the experience of a lot of people,” she said. “The storm happens. It destroys your house, and the rest of life goes on.”
There were plenty of stories that made her tear up, but one story about a woman who lost her bra put it in perspective for her in a lighthearted way.
“That was the thing she missed the most, because she is very well endowed, and the bra fit her really, really well. She is never going to have a bra that fits her like that ever again. I totally get that! It’s this tiny, little thing, but it is powerful,” Trasciatti said.
Trasciatti’s videos were used to track how people reacted when they heard about the storm – how they received information and used it to make decisions about whether to evacuate.
She worked with two other principal researchers at Hofstra, Elisabeth Ploran, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, and E. Christa Farmer, an assistant professor in the Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability. They sifted through 152 interviews to count specific words used to indicate the decisions.
Half said family members or friends had an influence on their decision about whether to evacuate. Thirty-nine percent mentioned a media source, and 8 percent mentioned specific authority figures. Even with all the warnings about Sandy, only 33 percent of people who were advised to evacuate before the storm hit did so.
People often left when utilities failed. When the researchers asked how the residents would respond if they knew they wouldn’t have power, that was more persuasive. Researchers also found that experience was a big factor in evaluating the severity of the storm.
“Many people had indicated that they had evacuated for Hurricane Irene, and Hurricane Irene wasn’t really that bad of a storm, so they decided they didn’t need to evacuate for Sandy,” Ploran said. “So if I evacuate for a storm and it is not that bad, then I am not going to evacuate the next time. But then, if that storm is horrible, then I will evacuate the next time. So it is kind of creating a back and forth, back and forth rather than creating a consistent pattern of evacuating.”
Gina Eosco, a former graduate student at Cornell University, worked on a coastal storm project on the visual aspect of communication that produced similar findings. She said the results have to do with cognitive shortcuts called heuristics, when humans tend to recall past experiences as a frame of reference for the next experience.
“There was this frame of reference that was sort of, ‘If my house survived that storm, then it will survive this one,’” she said. “That is an inference that you have to be very careful to make, because a lot has changed geographically.
“I don’t think we always know when to use them and when not to, but we do know that coastal residents are using them.”
Eosco’s research focused mostly on visual messages. Evacuation maps don’t help residents clearly interpret the gravity of what is going to happen, but a picture of a flooded building does. Eosco wants to find a way to replicate what the predicted damage of the storm will be.
Both Eosco and Trasciatti’s research groups found that no matter what residents’ past experiences were or how the message was delivered, some people would not leave. Eosco described their attitudes as playing with “weather for sport.” They have a special attachment to the sea and believe they can make it through, she said.
Jennifer Marlon, an assistant research scientist in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, identified this group as “diehards,” which made up 22 percent of coastal residents in Connecticut. This group percent fell on one extreme end of a spectrum of five different groups and the likelihood they would evacuate. She called the next group “reluctants” – making up 27 percent – which is the largest on the spectrum. They will evacuate only if ordered to do so by police or firefighters. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the “first out,” who tend to be younger and are always eager to leave when they hear there is a storm coming.
While their research is preliminary, these social and physical scientists plan to use it to try to save lives the next time a storm is predicted to hit land.
“People don’t just automatically understand a forecast,” Marlon said. “You can’t just assume that everyone can visualize the impacts and understand when somebody says we may have power outages. We don’t necessarily translate that into our refrigerator won’t work, toilets and showers won’t work. People bring very different levels and awareness to the table and they have very different abilities and resources for preparing.”
Reach reporter Maren Machles at [email protected] or 202-408-1491. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.