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Volume 2005-1

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2005-1

Douglas Paton, School of Psychology, University of Tasmania, Locked Bag 1342, Launceston, Tasmania 7250, Australia.. Email: Douglas.Paton@utas.edu.au

Volume : 2005-1

Douglas Paton

School of Psychology,
University of Tasmania
Launceston, Tasmania

Preparing for and Responding to Adverse Events:
Perspectives on natural and political hazards


The Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies would like to add its voice to the expressions of sympathy offered to the survivors of the Boxing Day tsunami. Although some five months have passed since it first impacted several Indian Ocean communities, its ramifications continue. This disaster has created an unprecedented humanitarian, research and political response. It has also been unprecedented in terms of the aid money from an outpouring of international concern.

Given expert concern regarding future risk in this and other areas, the research stimulated by this event will provide valuable insights into the physical, psychological and social consequences of natural hazard impacts and their relationship to response, recovery and humanitarian aid provision. Recent memories of the speed with which the tsunami struck and the devastating nature of the ensuing consequences may increase the likelihood of lessons being applied, but it does not guarantee that structural and social change will take place.

In this context, it is pertinent to consider the determinants of the adoption of mitigation measures in populations at risk from diverse natural hazard phenomenon. In addition to their role in facilitating understanding of response and recovery, post-tsunami research efforts are in a position to examine how social and political processes influence the adoption or non-adoption of any recommendations that are forthcoming from research and aid initiatives. The outcome of these endeavours has implications for activities at the other end of the natural hazard planning process; what influences the adoption of reduction and readiness strategies prior to hazard impacts. Or to put it another way, and given the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, to what extent would calls for mitigation and readiness have been heeded prior to the Boxing Day tsunami occurring?

The Boxing Day tsunami and subsequent warnings regarding the continued level of risk of large scale hazard activity around the planet provides a reminder that, because of the level of social and economic development in at-risk areas, a core objective of natural hazard planning involves implementing strategies designed to build a social capacity for co-existence with natural processes whose activity can sometimes constitute highly disruptive hazards. Some reduction and readiness strategies will be directed to managing the risk to the physical and built environment (e.g., retrofitting infrastructure, lifelines engineering, land use planning). Others will be directed towards facilitating community capacity to adapt to the consequences that can result from living in a hazardous environment (e.g., encouraging support for and adoption of protective measures). In contrast to the former, in which relatively objective analyses of known data regarding the likelihood of hazard occurrence and its consequences informs the process, the latter occurs in a context defined by considerable social, political, economic and psychological diversity. That is, living with risk is not enough to guarantee action at community, societal or political levels. For example, a combination of the perceived infrequency of seriously damaging hazard events and other social policy and political priorities, can reduce the level of priority assigned to hazard mitigation in social policy and political agenda. For instance, while it remains subject to judicial review, the belief that delays in issuing warnings derived from attempts to reconcile economic and hazard consequences rather than an outright concern for human well-being is currently the subject of litigation. It thus becomes important to accommodate the psychological and social dynamics when developing and implementing hazard reduction and readiness plans.

This issue is discussed by Davis, Ricci and Mitchell in the context of residents’ accounts of the high level of fear and perceived risk from volcanic eruptions from Mt Vesuvious. Despite this, their awareness of and confidence in evacuation planning remains low. This discrepancy between acknowledgement of the existence of a threat and knowledge of how to respond to that threat illustrates the complex social and psychological context within which mitigation takes place.

Unless the dynamics of this relationship are articulated, it is likely that planning initiatives will fail to address community needs and expectations, reducing both the likelihood that their message will get through and the likelihood that it will trigger the actions required. Davis, Ricci and Mitchell discuss this in the context of community member’s risk perception, their perceived control over eruption effects, their trust in government agencies and dispositional factors.

A similar discrepancy is the subject of the second paper in this edition. Spittal, McClure, Siegert and Walkey discuss their finding that while residents in Wellington, New Zealand believed themselves to be better prepared for and less likely to be injured by a major earthquake, they also believed that their homes would be more likely to suffer damage. This discrepancy provides the context for a discussion of interventions capable of enhancing earthquake preparedness.

The response to the Boxing Day tsunami provided a good illustration of both the magnitude of the international response triggered by such events and the need for it to be capable of operating across cultural boundaries. In addition to concerns arising from cross-cultural issues regarding the validity of diagnostic criteria, it is also pertinent to question the validity of using crisis intervention practices developed for individualistic Western cultures in collectivist cultures.

While focusing on their use in the context of survivors of hazards deriving from political rather than natural hazards, Dwairy’s paper discusses an issue with more general applicability. Dwairy discusses how, in collectivist cultures, stressors are experienced in groups characterized by interdependence, in which the emotional correlates are other-focused, and where members’ conceptualization of their needs are group- rather than individual-focused. Similarly, coping is a collective rather than an individual activity in which members think, feel and behave in ways that sustain collective affiliation, identity and social and religious values.

Dwairy discusses the need for intervention models to accommodate the implications of response and recovery occurring with a context defined by extended families and religious affiliation. Dwairy argues that intervention models can benefit from insights gained from incest treatment models that afford opportunities to develop mechanisms capable of accommodating intra- and inter-group context of collective trauma, and for these models to include metaphoric, artistic and democratic pathways for emotional expression.

Dwairy’s work stems for an examination of traumatic victimization from exposure to political hazards, and this theme is continued in the final article in this edition. Duncan, Gidron, Shrestha, and Aryal discuss the relation between perceived psychological proximity to political violence and posttrauma symptoms and physical and social well being. They discuss the direct (e.g., from direct victimization from politically-motivated torture) and indirect (e.g., loss of self-worth from social ostracism associated with reporting victimization) role of cultural predispositions in the aetiology of these reactions in Nepal. In addition to providing guidelines for aid workers working with survivors of political violence, Duncan, Gidron, Shrestha, and Aryal discuss another relatively under-researched topic; the posttrauma management of issues that arise when working with non-literate populations.

Although infrequent, events on the scale of the Boxing Day tsunami will strike other communities in the future. The time required to develop the attitudes and practices that facilitate a capacity for co-existence with the potentially hazardous aspects of our environment mean that we must guard against complacency and use the recent tsunami as a catalyst for sustained action to promote this capacity and ensure that the outcomes of the endeavours of the research and aid communities in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami are put to good use. This is particularly true with regard to what appears to be emerging as the major policy legacy of this event, the development of a tsunami warning systems. Warning system effectiveness will be a function of the degree to which it is developed in ways consistent with community beliefs and expectations. Research funding must be allocated to this task if we are to increase the likelihood that people will act on receiving the warning. Getting people to act is one aspect of effective response; the other is ensuring they are prepared for what happens after they respond to the warning. The development of adaptive capacity or resilience should thus be given equal priority in policy agenda. It is equally important that we look beyond tsunami and adopt the development of resilient communities as a major policy platform.

The contents of this edition of the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies have discussed issues capable of making valuable contributions to this debate. It is now up to the politicians to play their part and ensure that this work is used to develop and sustain the adaptive capacity of the citizens they purportedly answer to.


Douglas Paton© 2005. The author assigns 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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