of risk from
Perceptions of risk from natural hazards in
two remote New Zealand communities
New Zealand's spectacular scenery owes its origins to natural processes that continue to shape and move the physical environment. Thus many of New Zealand's tourist centres are located in areas where there are significant risks from natural hazards. In 1995-96 and 1999, two case studies were conducted in small tourist communities known to be at risk from natural hazards. These case studies aimed to learn more about community understanding of the risk and willingness to accept the risk, and to help establish communication channels between agencies responsible for managing the risk and the residents. Both case studies were conducted prior to decisions being made about capital protection works. The purpose of this paper is to review the processes applied and to suggest how this experience might be used to help design effective procedures for communicating emergency response information. Statements made by residents implied that many of them were aware of the likelihood component of risks from natural hazards and had chosen to accept to tolerate them in return for personal lifestyle benefits. There was less awareness of the potential magnitude of events. The response from participants indicated that such small-scale case studies of this nature can generate goodwill in small communities, and thus provide a means of enhancing community awareness and uptake of emergency preparedness.
Perceptions of risk from natural hazards in
two remote New Zealand communities
New Zealand's spectacular scenery owes its origins to natural processes that continue to shape and move the physical environment. Its major cities are located on harbours, many of which are remnants of ancient volcanoes. Auckland, the largest city, is built on a volcanic field that has recorded 20 eruptions in the past 20,000 years, of which the most recent (and largest) was between 600 and 800 years ago (Johnston et al., 1997). Earthquakes are prevalent and Wellington, the capital city, is situated on an active fault line. Many other active faults exist through the whole country. The northern part of the country is at times subject to cyclones and major storm events, while the south island braided rivers which carry massive amounts of shingle from the mountains to the sea, rise suddenly and flood regularly.
In New Zealand within the last 150 years there have been two major volcanic events that have killed over 300 people, and nine fatal earthquakes that have together killed 289 people; serious floods occur almost every year, and storm events are `accepted' occurrences that all New Zealanders are aware of (New Zealand National Commission for International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction, 1994).
Risk perception and communication research
Since the late 1960s a substantial body of literature relating to people's perceptions of risk has developed (see review by Rohrmann, 1999). In conjunction, during the past 15 years the information gained from this work has been applied to developing approaches to risk communication, defined as "an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups and institutions" (National Research Council, 1989). Risk communication is now an established part of organisational risk management (Standards Australia and Standards New Zealand, 1999; Canadian Standards Association, 1997).
Much of the early work on risk perceptions concentrated on trying to develop linkages between perception and response in the belief that this would assist the development of risk communication tools that would make it possible to 'educate' the public or change their perceptions of risk to make them closer to expert perceptions (Slovic, 1986; Fischhoff et al., 1982). Results showed that the reasons for the differences between public perceptions of risks (mainly in areas of technological hazard) and expert predictions were that the public and the experts were concerned about different aspects of risk (Green and Brown, 1980; Renn and Swaton, 1985; Slovic, 1987, Slovic et al., 1985). Whereas technical estimates of risk were based on numerical estimates of probability and magnitude of the effect, the general public included factors such as the scale of possible events, the 'dread' nature, whether they felt they were being exposed voluntarily and their judgement of the degree of scientific knowledge in the area (Covello et al.. 1981; Fischhoff et al.. 1981, Krewski et al.. 1987, Sjoberg, 2000).
Thus people's perceptions of the risks are informed by a number of factors that may not seem relevant to experts making technical assessments of the same risks and individuals and communities respond to risk and risk information according to their perceptions and understanding of the risk, though the links may at time be complex (Rogers, 1997).
In the past, the level of acceptable level of risk from natural hazards has been determined by third parties, such as engineers and elected politicians. Increasingly, communities in New Zealand as elsewhere, are being involved in this process, and at the same time being asked to accept greater responsibility for managing natural hazard risks. To do this they require good information about the risks that are relevant to their community. The link between perception, knowledge and behaviour (intent) has been shown to be important in understanding attitudes towards climate change (O'Connor et al., 1999), and it is likely that this link is also relevant to risks from natural hazards which have many similar characteristics. Trust and credibility (of third parties) are critical and have been shown to be correlated with perceptions about the third parties including knowledge and expertise, openness and honesty; and perceptions of concern and care (Peters et al., 1997). The challenge for technical experts is to communicate with the public in a way that recognises the factors that are important to individuals and communities, provides them with the information that they are looking for to assist in their personal decision making, and increases their understanding of the hazard and the risks posed.
In a survey examining the links between self-protective behaviour and awareness of mitigations and past experience of hazards Weinstein (989) noted that members of the public cannot be relied on to maximise self-protective behaviour, and suggested that lack of immediacy may be a reason why the public does not translate this concern to preparedness. This is particularly relevant to New Zealand where the short period of human habitation means that there is little understanding of the potential impact of natural hazards such as volcanoes and major earthquakes. However, a survey of Wellington residents in 1994 showed that earthquakes were considered to be the most likely natural hazard to cause a disaster (Bray and Field, 1994). Eighty-eight percent believed that an earthquake was likely in Wellington within the next five years. These results show stronger expectations than those found in a survey of San Francisco residents (Jackson, 1981) and in the Parkfield experiment in risk communication (Mileti and Fitzpatrick, 1992).
There have been some studies of people's perceptions of natural hazard risk undertaken in New Zealand including Johnston et al., 1999. Another study (Gregory, Loveridge and Gough, 1997) demonstrated that the general public are aware of natural hazards and the risks they pose, and keen to enter into dialogue with agencies to improve response procedures. In a study of eight New Zealand groups, Rohrmann (1996) showed that earthquakes received the highest personal risk exposure ratings over a range of 24 hazards (risk sources).
Early risk communication studies, such as those reported in Krimsky and Plough, (1988) and Gow and Otway (1989) showed that public perceptions of risk can have a significant effect on the outcomes of planning processes. Further, it has been recognised that while risk communication may not necessarily solve conflicts (as illustrated by the on-going saga in siting issues for hazardous waste facilities) in other circumstances, where good risk communication has been initiated early and in good faith, it may either help resolve problems, or allow the critical issues to be identified (Chess et al., 1989). More recently the public have been viewed as partners in decision making. The challenge for risk communication has been to provide frameworks and information to assist the public in this role (Chess, 1999; Johnson, 1999; Rich et al., 1999).
This paper describes two case studies that looked at community understanding of natural hazards in two remote New Zealand communities (Mt Cook village and Franz Josef Glacier village) in late 1995 and early 1999. The aim of the paper is to evaluate the processes used in each case study, and to suggest how this experience might be applied to help design effective procedures for communication emergency response information.
The two case studies discussed in this paper were initiated recognising the partnership role of the public in making decisions about structural works for risk mitigation. In both cases agencies with responsibility for managing the risks wanted to know about the views of the people most at risk. The intention was that this information would be used to inform decision making (about structural and non-structural options) and to establish communication channels for on-going dialogue between regulatory authorities and residents. The two studies were exploratory and planned as a first step in a continuing process.
In both cases the vehicle chosen was a series of semi-structured individual face-to-face interviews. Face-to-face interviews have been shown to lead to a high level of co-operation and allow greater opportunities to obtain 'rich' information (Marans, 1987). In this instance, individual interviews were used as a means of gauging perceptions and developing trust relationships as a preliminary to developing channels of communication between regulatory authorities and residents.
This paper briefly describes the two case studies, examines the similarities and differences between them, looks at community characteristics that may affect knowledge and awareness, and makes some recommendations for enhancing community preparedness and ability to respond to natural hazard events.
Table 1 summarises some of the socio-demographic characteristics of the two communities, derived from observation, and New Zealand Department of Statistics 1996 census data.
Table 1: Socio-demographic characteristics of the two case study areas
|Mt Cook Village||Franz Josef Glacier Village|
|Nature of the community||Cohesive and informed (including both short and long-term residents)||Divided - two communities, 'permanents' (informed) and 'transients' (largely uninformed) 'Transients' was the term used to refer to people who had lived in the area less than five years.|
|Employment||3 (large) employers (effectively full employment)||Multiple employers range of small (sole trader) to large (unemployment 9% in 1996)|
|Housing||Property all owned by employers and tied to employment||Mix of home ownership (40%), rental property (40%), and employer provided accommodation|
|Age structure||No older residents and few children (local primary school older children go to boarding school)||Similar to general population (local primary school older children go to boarding school)|
|Median Income||$22,700 (1996)||$18,200 (1996)|
|Educational qualifications||No qualifications 9% Skilled vocational or degree 19%||No qualifications 26% Skilled vocational or degree 10%|
|Data collection||18 semi-structured interviews||25 semi-structured interviews|
Location and population
Mt Cook village is a small, remote community with between 100 and 150 permanent residents, excluding summer staff. It is at a 'road end' located in Mt Cook National Park on the east side of the New Zealand Southern Alps. At any one time there may be up to 1000 overnight or 2-3000 day visitors.
Objective and approach
The objective of the case study was to identify and assess residents' understanding and perception of the hazards and risks, acceptance or tolerance of the risks, mitigation procedures, and emergency planning. The interview schedule was designed to elicit information about:
The case study was conducted over three days, and during that time sixteen current residents, and two ex-residents who had lived in the area for nearly 50 years, were interviewed using semi-structured, individual, taped interviews. Participants were selected from each of three employment groups incorporating a range of levels of seniority. Residents are highly mobile and many spend a considerable amount of time outside the community. Therefore individuals were selected according to availability on the days on which the interviews were conducted.
The case study was conducted in conjunction with a technical assessment of risk from natural hazards undertaken by the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS). This technical assessment addressed the risk of flooding from three catchments. An additional significant hazard was identified: that of rockfall from the catchment immediately behind the commercial part of the village. The potential for compounding with the effects of flooding meant that this was viewed as potentially catastrophic and life threatening (McSaveney, et al., 1996).
Because the village is located inside a National Park there are no privately owned residences; all residential accommodation is linked to employment. Most single family residences are located on the flood-prone Black Birch fan, adjacent to the Glencoe fan (potentially at risk from rockfall) where the main hotel and central services are located.
The case study indicated a cohesive community, demonstrated through a high level of support for the school, community activities, and successful fundraising for the proposed village hall.
Knowledge and understanding
Participants were asked about living in the area, and what they knew about various natural hazards and the likely effect on the village area. Three catchments affect the areas: Black Birch, Glencoe and Kitchener, and each of these was addressed separately. The responses indicated that perceptions of natural hazard risk were primarily linked to flooding. Most of the people interviewed had lived at Mt Cook for more than five years, and most had experienced the major flood in January 1994. Many had seen photographs of the (larger) 1979 flood event and indicated that their perceptions of the risks were determined by their personal estimation of the likelihood and frequency of events, and an expectation of their ability to cope with the consequences.
A number of individuals expressed a sense of satisfaction or enjoyment associated with the harsh nature of their surroundings. People accepted that they were living and working in a hostile environment, that it is an isolated and wild environment and that no amount of protection will ever make it totally 'safe'.
In terms of magnitude it was apparent that two different threats were recognised; 'normal' flooding from heavy rain, and 'catastrophic' flooding such as would occur if a stream dammed as a result of debris and then released. The consequences of the two types of flood were understood to have different consequences. Respondents believed that both types of flood event would build slowly and that therefore the threat would be to property rather than people. While this view was consistent with technical assessments for the Black Birch, the technical assessment for the Glencoe catchment was that an event would occur very rapidly and that lives were at risk.
The threat of flooding from the Black Birch was 'accepted' by all residents of the fan as a 'fact of life' in the village, and something that does not cause serious concern. It was also accepted that although engineering works can reduce the risk, it is not possible to control rivers of this nature, and that at some stage there will be a major flood. Individuals were prepared to live with or accept the risk of flooding based on their judgement that risks are to property rather than to people.
Most respondents indicated awareness of Civil Defence procedures and noted that because of their remote location they tended to have reasonably large stores of supplies on hand. The hotel was viewed as a resource in the case of a crisis. Part of the reason for this was that the hotel was used as a gathering point and emergency shelter during the 1979 emergency. New information about the risk from the Glencoe catchment has caused reconsideration of these procedures.
Location and population
Franz Josef Glacier village is located on the west side of the Southern Alps, and is a popular stop on the tourist loop from Nelson or Christchurch through the Haast Pass back to the east coast. It has a varying population, with the number of residents rising from about 200 to around 500 over the summer. In addition, there may be several thousand tourists in town on any one night in the summer period. The area loosely referred to as Franz Josef is bounded by the Fox Hills and Lake Mapourika and covers approximately 20km of road.
Objective and approach
In 1998, the West Coast Regional Council commissioned a GNS natural hazard assessment for the Franz Josef Glacier township. This report looked primarily at the flood hazard, but also at earthquakes; specifically flooding following an earthquake. A series of options for managing the flood risk was presented. Since any structural works required to implement a selected option would need to be paid for by the local community this report was initially released on a confidential basis to ten selected members of the community for comment. The case study was conducted during this period prior to the formal release of the report.
The objective of this case study was to review community understanding of natural hazards in the area, and to assess preparedness for flooding and earthquake. Respondents were questioned about:
Twenty-five semi-structured interviews were conducted over four days, including a cross section of the community (Gough et al., 1999). Participants ranged from people who had lived in the area all their life, to individuals who had been there for only a few months. Eight of the ten residents who had been given the technical report were included in the case study.
Permanent residents and summer workers live in privately owned houses, flats and company accommodation. Permanent residents include farmers and rural dwellers, as well as village residents involved in service and tourism activities. There is a large Department of Conservation presence. The remainder of the community was referred to as transients, including short-term summer labour, and people who come in to town, buy or lease a business, stay for four or five years and move on (there is a high turnover in the motel industry).
Notably respondents reported two views of the community; one, that it is a close and co-operative community; the other, that it is fragmented and disparate. The interviews indicated little evidence of a sense of community in the community at large, but there was evidence of close co-operation among long-term residents and local farmers
Knowledge and understanding
The GNS technical report showed that the Franz Josef village area is at risk from a number of natural hazard events including
The case study sought to assess community awareness of the major hazards identified in the technical report, and awareness and understanding of response mechanisms in place.
The immediate issue was the effect of flooding in the Waiho and possible destruction of the road bridge, which is a major link on the West Coast tourist circuit. The other two events would also result in serious flooding of the Waiho.
While a number of people said that they were not concerned specifically about earthquakes because they could happen anywhere in New Zealand and there was little you could do to prepare, these same people viewed an earthquake as a localised event. They were unaware of the possible geographical spread of damage, or of the time it might take for links with the outside world (whatever that might be) to be restored.
None of the respondents had any direct experience of cleanup after an earthquake. The impression of an earthquake is that it is all over fairly quickly and there was little comprehension of medium or long-term effects. Many believed that large numbers of people would be killed. Most residents were aware of the possibility of an earthquake, but because of not knowing what they could do about it, they tended to discount the impact.
In contrast to earthquakes, most people interviewed recognised the likelihood of a flood and understood the consequences. The notable exceptions were more recent residents living on the south bank of the river the area most likely to be flooded.
Newer residents (since 1988) underestimated the speed at which the river could go from being high to overtopping. Longer-term residents interviewed noted with concern the increase in the height of the riverbed and recognised the potential problems with large blocks of ice falling off the face of the glacier and being carried down to the bridge. Estimates of typical times given by experienced residents were that it might be 30 minutes from a moderate flow to a high flow and then another ten minutes for it to break out. They felt that more recent residents had a superficial awareness of hazard, and little understanding of the possible consequences.
While acceptance was not explored in any detail, from statements made it could be inferred that some of the longer-term residents in the rural areas accepted (lived with) the risk of flooding. People living in the town were less willing to accept that the river cannot be 'controlled'.
Civil Defence in the area was linked to the volunteer Fire Brigade. Recent flooding north of the town had provided an opportunity for reviewing procedures, and those who were directly involved stated that they believed that the procedures were adequate and effective. Others, less directly involved, were not so sure, and knew little about any procedures. Several people interviewed observed that the system relied on two key people, both of whom were often away.
Summary of results
The two case studies were conducted in conjunction with geotechnical assessments of risk to people and property from natural hazards, primarily flooding and earthquake.
While both studies sought to ascertain resident's understanding and awareness of the different natural hazards associated with the area, the purpose for obtaining this information was different. The purpose of the Mt Cook study was to assess resident's willingness to accept risks, to be used to assist engineers in deciding on structural works. The purpose of the Franz Josef study was to find out how much residents knew about the hazard and the likely effect of various options for mitigation to find out how informed individual choices (between mitigation options) would be, and to use this to design appropriate communication processes to increase knowledge. In both cases the case studies were seen to be a means of establishing a channel of communication between the local community and the regulatory agency, therefore elements of trust were relevant.
There appeared to be significant differences in the structure of the two communities. The picture derived from at interviews was that Mt Cook village community was cohesive and informed, while the Franz Josef village community was more fragmented and on average less knowledgeable. Respondents from the Mt Cook community were confident about their ability to respond to a major natural hazard event, whereas some members of the Franz Josef community were unsure (a) about their own ability to respond, and (b) about the ability of other members of the community.
Table 2 shows a brief summary of some of the key findings from the two case studies.
The process of conducting the case studies highlighted a number of methodological issues that should be considered in planning for case studies in small communities.
For example -
Table 2: Summary of case study results
|Mt Cook Village||Franz Josef Glacier Village|
|Awareness of natural hazards (likelihood)||Good awareness of flood hazard with respect to two of the three catchments. Little understanding of earthquake hazard. Limited understanding of rockfall hazard.||'Permanents' had a good understanding for flood, but not earthquake. Recent radio reports about the vulnerability of the area to earthquake had concerned and puzzled many residents. 'Transients ' less awareness (or willingness to concede to awareness)|
|Understanding of likely extent of damage (magnitude)||Good understanding for flooding less for rockfall and earthquake||'Permanents' good understanding for flood, but not earthquake 'Transients' little understanding|
|Understanding of engineers' ability to control the hazard||Good||'Permanents' good 'Transients' poor had unrealistic expectations of engineers' ability to control the river|
|Trust||Residents trusted regulatory authorities but were unhappy that they hadn't been consulted earlier.||Serious mistrust of regulatory authorities There was a positive attitude to the new head of the Regional Council who had been seen to be actively in this project.|
|Preparedness - general||Residents well prepared for flooding, not prepared for earthquake or rockfall||'Permanents' well prepared for flooding 'Transients' believed they were prepared (some false optimism) Neither group prepared for earthquake|
|Preparedness Civil Defence||Civil Defence Plan in place, community generally well aware plan tested regularly, not dependent on individuals||Civil Defence Plan in place, many residents unaware seldom tested, highly reliant on a few individuals|
Conclusions and recommendations
One inference that was drawn from the two case studies was that community structure and cohesiveness appeared to be linked to better understanding and acceptance of natural hazard risk. The factors that affect cohesion were not explored.
The two communities studied are tourist communities. This means that a significant number of members of the 'permanent' or long-term community come from other areas and have a wide experience and different expectations to those who have lived in the area all their lives. These people tend to have 'chosen' to live there, often for lifestyle reasons. This was strongly evident at Mt Cook, and to a lesser degree at Franz Josef.
Longer term residents in both communities were aware of flooding issues and at Mt Cook were realistic about the ability of engineers and technical experts to control natural hazards, and in particular, rivers. Longer-term residents at Franz Josef were also realistic. However some of the newer (property owning) residents of the township felt that you could control the river "it is just a question of how much money you throw at it".
Social and cultural perspectives are an important adjunct to technical and scientific information because individual and community understanding and awareness of natural hazard issues significantly affects the way communities respond to events. Both case studies were designed to provide a communication channel between residents and regulatory authorities that could be used to transfer information about natural hazards and emergency response procedures.
Table 3 summarises participants response to the process adopted by regulatory authorities as demonstrated by the commissioning of the case study, and uses these results to infer conclusions for future study.
Table 3: Providing information content and process
|Mt Cook respondents||Franz Josef respondents||Conclusions & Recommendations|
Since the completion of the study at Franz Josef in early 1999 a steering group has been formed with representatives from the council(s) and the community as well as technical experts to take forward the process of choosing an option for mitigation. This steering group has taken responsibility for keeping the community informed. No further action has been taken on formal communication at Mt Cook, but informal communication continues through the vehicle of joint committees. The local community association remains a strong advocate for residents.
Residents in small remote communities such as Mt Cook and Franz Josef are often better prepared for emergencies than those in larger towns because they are used to smaller scale events that cause power and telephone cuts. Table 4 looks at the responses elicited regarding beliefs about preparedness and Civil Defence mechanisms.
Table 4: Preparedness existing beliefs and implications
|Mt Cook respondents||Franz Josef respondents||Conclusions & Recommendations|
A further inference drawn is that while people believe they are well prepared and may have formal Civil Defence kits on hand, they are often unaware of the possible extent (temporal and spatial) of major natural hazard events. This leads to the recommendation that communication should concentrate on the two aspects of risk from natural hazards likelihood and magnitude of effect, and that this may require greater concentration on different aspects of effect.
Since the Mt Cook study was completed the structure of the community has changed with one major employer leaving. In addition, structural works have been undertaken to reduce the risk from the Glencoe catchment. Flood warning devices have been installed, and Civil Defence procedures have been revised and tested. At Franz Josef consultation is continuing with the community being involved in making decisions about preferred structural options.
In conclusion, the residents of two communities affected by natural hazard risk demonstrated their willingness to participate and provide information to help plan for hazard mitigation by responding positively to approaches by regulatory authorities for assistance. In the Mt Cook case, the information obtained was included as part of the technical report which became the basis for implementing engineering protection works and mitigation works. Following the Franz Josef study a task force including local representatives has been set up to choose a preferred option for mitigation.
In general, the response to these case studies indicated that such approaches can generate goodwill in small communities, and provide a basis for enhancing community awareness and uptake of emergency preparedness procedures.
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