Andrew Wisdom, Catalyst, Keynote, Project, Team, Individual


Why is evacuation such a tough decision when our homes are threatened? It’s not just that warnings happen all the time, but that our home is our castle.

A discussion emerged on my recent post about the problems caused by people not heeding evacuation warnings at times of emergency. I think there are three core issues at work: Credible threat, acceptable alternative, and home as cosmos.

The first challenge is precisely that the majority of warnings do not progress to emergency. Y2K was a classic example of things not going wrong. It is amusing in retrospect to remember how we were all advised to stock up on water and food and torch batteries in anticipation of systems grinding to a halt as the clocks ticked over to the new millennium, but at the time the risk seemed worrying real. Even threats of weather-related emergencies most often come to nothing. This plays to our inbuilt hope that things won’t go wrong, or at least won’t be too bad, and feeds our inertia.

The second challenge is for people to have somewhere to go. I wondered when I heard of hundreds of thousands of people being told to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Sandy where they all would go. They can’t all have relatives within a day’s drive but outside the projected course of the storm with a house big enough to cope with an influx of visitors. Of course, the answer is that people go to their local schools. But are schools properly set up to cater for this eventuality?

The third challenge is created by people being unwilling to abandon their homes. Rowan Moore in his excellent and thought provoking Rowan Moore Why We Build flags that people vary in the way they think of their homes. Some people are nomads, using their homes as touch down points, places to rest their heads at night, places to store their possessions. New York, with its famously transient population, has plenty of nomads, particularly amongst the young professionals who cluster in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Others think of their homes as the centre of their world, what Moore calls home as cosmos. An obvious way that this is manifested is in home improvement. Reflect on the amount of time you spend thinking about how you can improve your home and this will probably point to whether you are a nomad or a cosmos creator. Even in New York there are plenty of people busily improving their homes. I think it is these people, with their strong emotional investment in their homes, that represent the biggest challenge for authorities if ever the call for evacuation is made.

So what should authorities do?

The first element is to encourage people to have a plan of what to do in the event of an emergency. People in bushfire-prone areas of Australia, such as on the forested urban fringe of Melbourne devastated by fire in 2009, are strongly encouraged to prepare a CFA Bushfire Survival Plan ahead of time. A key part of any plan is to recognise risk and be prepared to act. This clearly demands a strong education and engagement plan. What would an equivalent template for residents of New York look like?

The second element is to provide useful timely information. This has always been a problem but we are witnessing the value of social networking in this situation – provided power and telecommunications infrastructure continues to function. The democratisation of data also provides an opportunity for better information to be obtained and analysed in real time. How might authorities best harness these opportunities? What commercial opportunities might arise?

Thirdly, we need to have reliably safe havens for people to go to. Schools already are being tasked to fulfil this role, so how much effort is required to ensure they are truly effective? How much would it take to make them disaster-resistant, with effective construction, back-up power, resilient telecommunications, emergency food and bedding and so on.

Finally, no matter how irritating it might be that people ignore warnings and do not act effectively, authorities need to be ready to help and rescue as required.