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Conference Report
Disaster Psychology Symposium
NZPsS '97

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
Volume : 1997-3

A report on:

Disaster Psychology Symposium
50th Anniversary Conference of the
New Zealand Psychological Society

Reported by: Douglas Paton
Department of Psychology
Massey University
Palmerston North
New Zealand

Comprehensive emergency management: An emerging role for the social sciences

As New Zealand moves towards the adoption of a comprehensive, integrated emergency management system, attention has focused on the emergency services. While the emergency services play a central and pivotal role in managing several aspects of response and recovery, it is often assumed that social, psychological and community issues will be resolved as a direct consequence of dealing with the immediate physical and economic problems. While this way of thinking is declining, the goal of providing for immediate and longer-term psychological, social and community needs as an integral component of the overall response is still some way off. This symposium explored some of the issues that need to be addressed if this is to become a reality and presented strategies that could be pursued within the realms of comprehensive emergency management. This symposium brought together geologists and psychologists to demonstrate the potential that the interaction between these disciplines has for the identification of the practical problems and the formulation of solutions to deal with these multi-faceted problems.

The symposium opened with Johnston, Ronan, and Houghton's (1997) review of the physical effects of a recent volcanic eruption. The 1995-1996 Ruapehu eruption affected over twenty communities in New Zealand's North Island and caused disruptions to several key infrastructure sectors; in particular, transportation, water supply and electricity distribution. The total cost of the eruption has been estimated to be in excess of $NZ126 million, representing losses to economic production and services, damage to equipment and expenditure on mitigation and response activities. Johnston et al. pointed out how, although no community received more than a few millimetres of ash, high levels of anxiety were present (regarding, for example, possible physical effects, contamination of water supplies) during the initial phase of the eruption but were frequently not acknowledged by local officials. This disaster also illustrated the operation of the ripple effect. Anxiety was not restricted to local populations. Johnston et al., reported how media coverage resulted in those living further afield, but who had a connection with the communities and their members, experiencing concerns about their well-being. The 1995-1996 Ruapehu eruption is relatively small in comparison to many of the past eruptions from the volcanoes of the central North Island, but its consequences highlight the vulnerability of communities to even small eruptions. With increasing development and population growth the risk from similar or larger eruptions will continue to increase. Johnston et al. closed by discussing how social and physical scientists need to work closely together to improve ways in which emergency management professional can communicate information to communities and to gain a better understanding of the way in which individuals understand physical hazards and hazard reduction activities. Collaboration between these groups thus affords several opportunities for developing effective reduction and response systems. A better understanding of these relationships will also allow mental health professionals to prepare for their role and the kinds of problems they may be called upon to deal with.

The relationship between physical and psychological consequences was continued by McClure (1997). McClure argued that people often see the effects of natural disasters such as tornadoes and earthquakes as uncontrollable, and thus take fewer steps to prepare for disasters. However, he argued that a number of principles of social psychology can be applied to judgements about controllability and risk and influence the extent to which the effects of disasters can be perceived as controllable. McClure discussed how attributions about earthquake damage covaries with information about other earthquakes and other structures and influences judgements about the causes and preventability of specified cases of earthquake damage. In addition, he discussed how news reporting at different intervals after earthquakes influence attributions of earthquakes. This research could be used to enhance readiness by reducing the potential damage to personal property and enhancing perceived controllability. McClure also discussed how a degree of caution must be exercised when pursuing these possibilities. Reduction and readiness activities must accommodate the fact that judgements of risk may be biased by undue optimism and the illusion for personal invulnerability. Judgements of risk are also biased but the lengthy time interval between many disasters. McClure closed by discussing how research on risk judgement can be applied to increasing accuracy in judgements of risk.

In their analysis of the impact of the Ruapehu eruptions, Johnston et al. identified children as a prominent risk group. Huziff and Ronan (1997) developed this theme and described their use of an integrative conceptual model to predict and examine coping in 187 elementary school-aged children after the Ruapehu eruptions. The model included six primary factors assessed one month post-disaster: exposure, child demographics, home factors, perceived social support, negative cognitive and emotional style, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptomatology. Huziff and Ronan reported that, overall, 49% of the variance in children's initial level of coping ability was accounted for by these primary factors. Three months post-disaster, 54% of the variance in children's coping was accounted using these six primary factors plus one additional factor, initial level of coping ability. At the three-month post-disaster mark, each factor improved overall prediction of coping when entered in the analyses in the order specified by the conceptual model. They closed by discussing how this conceptual model could be used to organise intervention efforts and provide a framework for additional research into the determinants of risk status in children and others in the wake of natural disasters.

In the final paper presented in this symposium, Paton (1997) discussed the complex nature of community disaster impact and described the need for a multi-disciplinary approach to conceptualising and managing impact at this level. He argued that social psychological factors underpin community perceptions of hazards, and reduction and readiness activities as well as determining the quality of community response and adaptation. He discussed how framing interventions within a social psychological framework can enhance understanding the complexity of community risk status, community disaster impact, and the effectiveness of physical, community, economic and political interventions implemented as part of the emergency management response. Although coming from a social science perspective, this discussion reached conclusions similar to those presented by Johnston et al. Taken together, their conclusions reinforce the need for interventions that mobilise community action to deal, collectively, with physical, social and administrative impacts, and that maximise the benefits accruing from the activation of the therapeutic community.

Social scientists within New Zealand have generally not played a prominent role in the process of conceptualising the nature of disaster impacts and their management. This symposium discussed the untapped potential that exists in this respect. It provided insights into the benefits, particularly in a context defined by the collaborative endeavours of social and physical scientists, that can accrue to individuals, communities and society by integrating the concepts and strategies discussed here into the developing emergency management system.


Huzziff, C. and Ronan, K. (1997) Prediction of Children's coping with posttraumatic stress following the Mount Ruapehu Eruptions: A Prospective Study . Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Johnston, D.M., Ronan, K.R. and Houghton, B.F. (1997) Living with an erupting volcano: The physical and social impacts of the 1995-1996 Ruapehu eruption on New Zealand Communities. Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

McClure, J. (1997) Changing cognitions that undermine preparedness. Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Paton, D. (1997) Communities and Disasters: Integrating psychological, economic and political intervention. Symposium conducted at the New Zealand Psychological Society Conference, Palmerston North, New Zealand.


Douglas Paton © 1997. The author assign to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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