Tag Archives: disaster management

The “p” word: preparedness

So this week and the following week there are volcano awareness activities occurring across the northern half of the island. But something interesting happened yesterday.

I was telling the host I am staying with about where I will be and what time I will be back and other bits of housekeeping and she asked why I am going to all these places and what are “those people” (those involved in organising the week and running the activities) doing. I explained it is about raising awareness of the volcano and making sure the communities have the most up-to-date information, as well as participating in community resilience activities. The host burst out with, “that’s stupidness, everyone you talk to knows about the volcano. It’s there, how more obvious does the ‘awareness’ need to be? It’s a waste of government money which would be better used elsewhere.”

I for one, was shocked. I tried my best (and calmly) to convince her that people’s awareness of the volcano must be continuous, with more research on the volcano, and for communities to engage in planning for a potential future volcanic crisis.

She was not having any of it. So I said “we will agree to disagree” and left it at that.

I have had a similar conversation with her and a couple of her friends when they recounted their experiences with the 2013 tropical storm, and also when they felt the earthquakes from the volcano Kick em’ Jenny in 2001 (still the coolest volcano name ever). I asked out of curiosity, “What do you do in an event of an earthquake? Where is the safest place if you were in the house?”

“The cupboards in the kitchen”, one replied.

I remembered looking into the kitchen and noted the gas cannister connected to the cooker, which was next to said cupboards. Sure I can see why he would choose the cupboards but…there was pressurised gas next to it. I asked in return, “what about the dining table?” It was quite a sturdy and big table. The person laughed and told me it is not safe as it would collapse under the weight from the roof if it caved in.

Earthquake, tsunami and volcano awareness does happen in this country. But apparently some do not participate in these events or even appreciate the necessity for them. I said that preparing for such events is important, in which I was told:

“Prepare for them? The only preparation you need is to make your peace on Earth and confess your sins because God might be coming for you.”

 photo whatjusthappened3_zpsea76de68.gif
This was me moments before accepting defeat.
For being taught from undergrad all the way through my current PhD that awareness and preparation towards natural hazards is vital (along with all other aspects of disaster management), I have now been stumped twice in people’s attitudes towards it all. Granted these people are of a completely different generation so that might have something to do with it.

But I have asked myself: why did I get the response that I did? Did I explain preparedness wrong? Did I make it relevant to them? Is it ignorance? I have always held onto the belief that in no given society that is exposed to hazards that people are ‘ignorant’ about them, people just choose to perceive them and their environment, differently. Like I was told, La Soufrière is right there for all to see. That is being very conscious of its existence.

Maybe it is complacency? This woman was actually living in the UK during 1979, so maybe she responded in the way she did because she has not experienced the volcano in eruption?

But the way she said it, so full of venom, and making me feel that the other job of being a volcanologist, to raise awareness of your chosen volcano’s dangers, is not worthwhile…I just cannot shake it. Of course, I am going to participate in the awareness week though, I am not going to let one woman’s opinions stop me trying to make a difference.

But what is it about this volcano that makes people on this island view preparedness in such different ways? Is it related to what I observed last week?

Only time will tell…


*When I came back to the house late afternoon, with a gigantic payapa cut down from a neighbour in hand, all seemed to be forgiven for the morning’s disagreement. So not to worry, I have come to accept that some people’s beliefs and opinions cannot be changed.


Mental health and disasters.

Natural and man-made disasters happen year upon year. We see them reported in the news, with varying degrees (a discussion for another time). We can see the physical damage these disasters produce: damage to property and the environment, injuries and loss of lives, displacement and the local economy is disrupted.

But what is rarely portrayed is a hidden impact: the mental health related implications that arise in the approaching disaster (for example where a hazard gives a warning beforehand and is slow approaching, like a hurricane) and its aftermath. The short-term response and recovery may not be able to capture these issues because sometimes they occur beyond the standardised recovery programs (I touched upon this in my community resilience article).

I mentioned in my community resilience article the 2003 bushfires in East Gippsland in South Australia. Mainly because it is just such a good example of the mental health issues that can and do occur. The study described how local health practices saw an increased number of post-traumatic stress cases and also stress and anxiety, which became more apparent for those who chose to remain behind and defend their properties under the ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’ policy (which has since been revised following the 2009 bushfires).

Image by Fairfax (2003).
Fairfax (2003). The text reads: “Showing the strain: an exhausted firefighter takes a breather in Bunyip State Park.”

It is not restricted to natural disasters. Even man-made disasters cause mental health complications. Any war and conflict (any activity you can think of associated with conflict…it effects someone’s son, daughter, mother or father) is overwhelmingly traumatic; disease epidemics, the most prominent recently was the Ebola Crisis, putting victims through suffering before eventually dying. Imagine how it would effect you seeing someone you care about dying and you could not do anything to help them.

Image by Moore J./Getty Images (2014).
Image by Moore J./Getty Images (2014).

Chemical/industrial incidents also would induce psychological damage, the one I remember from my undergraduate days was the Bhopal disaster which the local population, 30 years on, still suffers and as far as I am aware, still fighting for justice (I will not put in an image of a victim…it would be too stomach-churning for some…you can Google images if you prefer).

Image by AFP (2009). This photo was from a protest marking the 25 year anniversary of the disaster.
Image by AFP (2009). This photo was from a protest marking the 25 year anniversary of the disaster.

How would you tackle such a problem? Mental health at present outside of the disaster context is still not fully represented. Foreign aid always brings in the physical necessities and money but I think directing some resources to Councillors and health professionals that will be dealing with the long-term impacts that go beyond the humanitarian aid window is important. Do not get me wrong, there is such a service available, but to what extent and where it is, is not as certain for me to tell you.

If the mental health issues are not fully addressed, what would the consequences be?

I would like mental health related consequences arising from disasters to be addressed more between the disaster managing practitioners and academics. Research is becoming more interdisciplinary, so why cannot we get more disciplines involved in studying populations exposed to hazards? Unless I am wrong. Maybe there is but it has not landed on my radar yet. I am no psychologist but I have chosen to make psychological concepts part of what I must learn as a social volcanologist-in training. Beyond the PhD, I would like to do a study on mental health and volcanic eruptions, but that is if I have a future in academia after it!

It will be hard. Some of these effects will be long-lived and what if the disaster strikes again within the person’s lifetime? That person may become completely ill-equipped mentally to cope and would have been failed by those that have ignored the invisible impact of disasters.

It needs to be talked about more. Mental health is important to maintain, especially if one is exposed to very stressful situations like natural and man-made hazards.

‘Paradise tax’

I wrote this article back in November. I certainly feel comfortable linking disaster management, society and volcanology.

‘Paradise tax’: the price Hawaiians are prepared to pay for living near volcanoes

By Jazmin Scarlett, University of Hull

Image by EPA (2014).


The destruction caused by the lava of Kilauea are grabbing the attention of the international media. Last week, footage showed this eruption claiming its first house in Pahoa and people began to question whether to try to halt the flow of lava and how you might go about it.

But the daughter of the family’s home that was destroyed was remarkably sanguine about losing the family home:

If you’re going to live on a volcano, it’s about her (the Hawaiian Goddess Pele), not us … if she wants her land back, then get out of the way. I like to call it ‘paradise tax’.

The volcano is part of their culture. Pele is such a dominant force in Hawaiian’s lives they tend to accept the possibility that it might erupt. For a lot of Hawaiians, their respect for the volcano god appears to override their fear of eruptions.

For instance, the now-displaced family is building another home on older, solidified lava. Hawaii is entirely volcanic due to being situated on a hot spot resulting in a continual output of volcanic material. As far as I am aware, the family did not have insurance. This shows their ability to bounce back and recover from a hazardous event.

Not everyone responds in the same way. Some people are scared, some panic or remain anxious. And yet Hawaiian people have dealt with Kilauea’s almost continuous eruption for more than 50 years now. Over the course of many generations, they are actively learning about the volcano and the risks it poses.

Hawaii hasn’t lost many lives to the lava of Kilauea – mainly because the lava flows are slow (due to a combination of its properties and the land it flows over) – slow enough, at least, for people to respond in time and adjust to the situation (for example evacuating like the Pahoa family did a month before their home was destroyed) but also because of the combined efforts of the public, the civil defence and government authorities.

To date, Kilauea has destroyed more than 200 properties, many roads and claimed the lives of four people in modern times. Historically, the largest number killed by a Mount Kilauea explosion was in 1790, ranging from 80-400 people, a number still being debated.

Someone’s got your back

The civil defence teams, with the combined efforts of volcanologists and all those involved in keeping the people safe, have experience in how to deal with and adapt to the ever-evolving situation. A recent update shows a collective calm and professionalism, presenting the information in a way that Hawaiians can comprehend.

The risk of property being destroyed is neither exaggerated nor underestimated. The authorities explain the risk by presenting as much information as available – and Hawaiians tend to trust that the authorities are being realistic. This feeds into how people learn and assess the risk to themselves and their properties.

Business as usual

At present there appears to be little chance of halting the advancing lava flow. The properties of the lava and external influences, such as the steepness of the terrain, mean that the point at which the lava flow might stop naturally is not yet apparent.

What has been shown in news bulletins are the more runny lava flows that volcanologists call “pāhoehoe” (the “hoe” meaning “to paddle” in Hawaiian) but this is not representative of the reality of the eruption which is producing more viscous, slower moving lava (“aʻā”). As in Italy and Iceland there have been attempts to stop lava flows in Hawaii but with mixed results. For instance, according to a report in NPR, a US$2m engineering project successfully diverted lava flows near Mount Etna in 1983. But a similar attempt in Hawaii in 1955 and 1960, however, failed because of lack of proper understanding of the situation.

Given the effectiveness of the volcanic hazard management system in place in Hawaii, I have no doubt that such attempts will be made if they are reasonable, through the combined efforts of volcanologists, engineers, the civil defence and a guaranteed investment for the project.

But in case the Hawaiian authorities don’t succeed in halting or diverting the eruption and the flow of lava, we mustn’t underestimate the power of Hawaiian culture and belief to deal with such volcanoes. Living in such parts of the world, disaster resilience is not an urgency but a way of life.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.