The average person doesn’t necessarily think about risk on a daily basis, which makes most people novices when it comes to understanding and calculating risk. There are many factors that make people accept risks that should give them pause if they really understood the odds. Perhaps this positive mental attitude is why we go to Vegas thinking that we might actually win big money — if we only get lucky.
The people living in Oso impacted by the mudslide never imagined that a disaster of the magnitude that hit them would ever really happen. In my work in emergency management, including as emergency management director for King County I have personally found people very comfortable with living with risk. What drives us as people to ignore facts comes in what I call the four stages of denial.
Stage 1: It won’t happen. That is to say that whatever the risks are of an earthquake; hurricane; tornado or an asteroid hitting the earth — these things won’t happen.
Stage 2: If it does happen, it won’t impact me. Sure disasters happen, but I’ve never suffered personal loss, so why should I expect it to happen to me in the future. After almost every big disaster, especially floods, we read of some old-timer saying, “I’ve lived here all my life and never seen anything like this!” We are particularly bad at telling geological time. We should not be using 60-to-80 year increments of life to predict what will happen.
Stage 3: If it does happen, and it does impact me, it won’t be that bad. We minimize what the potential impact might be. We’ve lived through storms, earthquakes, wildland fires before and we’ve been just fine. We’ll muddle through, always have, always will.
Stage 4: If it does happen and it is that bad, there is nothing we can do — we’ll all be dead anyway. It is this fatalist attitude that clears the conscience of any personal responsibility. A religious person might call it an “act of God”; therefore, “What can you do?”
In the coming weeks and months there will be plenty of legal action in Snohomish County with people suing government for not telling them about a slide hazard in the area where they chose to live. It will take years of litigation before all the cases are resolved.
I strongly believe that on a beautiful sunny day last summer, if someone had gone house to house with information and maps explaining what the slide history has been in the past for the area around Oso the people would have listened politely and not changed their behavior, put their home up for sale, or even purchased land movement insurance due to the additional cost in premiums. Why is that? Because they liked living there in that spot. They had a beautiful setting in which to live. They were near nature and wildlife, enjoyed the peace and quiet, walking along the river, walking the trails up into the nearby woods. If they had a cabin, it might have have been a place where generations of a family had enjoyed their summers.
I am confident of my above conclusions because the same setting and other natural hazards abound in Washington and people do not change their behaviors. They deliberately ignore potential natural hazards in favor of the other benefits that come with living in a location that puts their property and personal lives in danger.
The cities of Orting, Sumner, downtown Puyallup, Fife and other environs will someday be obliterated by a lahar coming off Mount Rainer when it eventually erupts again and sends its concrete-like slurry racing down the mountain side. Yet living in the valley is preferred by many.
The beaches of Ocean Shores and Long Beach will be swept clean like we’ve seen done in recent history in both Thailand and Japan from the tsunami that will follow a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake. The cities of Westport and Aberdeen will look like the Japanese fishing villages with boats carried inland and a match-stick like pile of rubble left behind. And, yet we build new homes on the beach and “love being near the water” and watching those winter storms come in. It is just so relaxing to take a weekend and “get near the water.”
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