Over the past few weeks, the United States and the Caribbean have been fraught with concern regarding the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The sudden onslaught of Hurricanes such as Harvey and Irma as well as the developing Hurricane Jose, is something many have attributed to climate change. In an interview with sociobiologist Rebecca Costa, author and host of the syndicated radio program “The Costa Report,” this writer discussed the relationship between climate change, natural disasters and how and why people react to these phenomena.
Q: Why do you think Houston didn’t evacuate when Hurricane Harvey hit?
Costa: “Well, there’s a number of reasons for that, I mean we can start with the fact that we have, well, let’s start with the scientific fact that we have more data and more accuracy when it comes to predicting the weather than any other time in human history. Just last year, we launched a weather satellite, which greatly improved our ability to track storms and rainfall, and other things that have affected the victims of Harvey. So, to give you some idea, prior to that weather satellite being launched, we were able to collect weather data, specific weather data, about every six minutes. And once that weather satellite went into commission, we could collect weather data every 30 seconds. So, imagine the amount of increase in accuracy one satellite was able to produce. We’ve never had that capability before, so, first of all, the degree of accuracy that we have now is new. Right, before we were sort of accurate, but nowhere near where we are today. And so there were a lot of false alarms and as you know, you cry wolf enough times and people become desensitized. So, particularly, in emergencies where you’ve boarded up your house right, and gone through the incredible hassle of packing up the family, finding a hotel, fighting traffic to get out of town, and you do that: one, two, three times, and you come back to find out, one tree went down in your neighborhood and nothing else happened. The fourth or fifth time, you’re not gonna evacuate. That’s just human nature. That stimulus response, it’s easily understood behavioral psychology; you become desensitized to the emergency; that’s the first thing. The second thing is, to this point in time; human beings have only evolved a physiological reaction to near-term threats and dangers. So, that means you see a snake in the road, your body physiological, automatically fills with chemicals that cause you to fight or flight, right, that’s what that is, a survival instinct that immediately spurs you into action. But when you put a cuff on a human being and you start telling them about climate change, their heartbeat doesn’t even go up one beat per hour, because the danger is too far out. And so, we are not designed at this point in human evolution to automatically spring to action when there’s a longer term threat, and the tragedy with all of that is that that physiological problem that we have where we don’t spring into action on a long-term problem is really harming us at this point in human development, because we have data about much longer term threats that can’t be solved at a moment’s notice. You can kill a snake or run away from a snake, but you need a much longer leave time to deal with something like climate change. And similarly, again, we’re not quite coming to terms with the amount of accuracy that is exponentially growing thanks to big data analytics and predictive analytics. So, we have two things converging here; one, we’re not designed by nature at this particular moment in time you have to take action on long-term threats. And we have that going against us, the second thing is we’ve become desensitized because the data and information we have wasn’t accurate before, and so, people took actions and they didn’t need to, and so now, they don’t understand that the models are far more accurate. If somebody tells you to evacuate because of a fire or because of flooding or because of a wind dust and storm, regardless of whatever it is, it’s a thousand times more a probable that you’re gonna be affected, than it was, simply a year ago. And it still hasn’t quite set in. People still think that when the governor says: ‘evacuate’, it sounds the same as evacuation from 10 years ago where you packed up and stuff and nothing happened.”
Q: How much do you think our government and government action and the media has influenced people’s behavior regarding disasters?
Costa: “Well, I think that people that don’t believe the government will protect them, they get out. And the people that believe that, well somebody will come for me, they stay. It sort of depends on what your orientation is. Frankly, those that think that, ‘you know no one’s going to come and I’m on my own’, are more likely to evacuate.”
Q: How does that relate to people who do not have the resources to evacuate?
Costa: “You know you point to a very important issue that not everybody has the resources to get out. And you know, to that extent we live on this false precept that when the governor says: ‘go buy more water, you need flashlights and batteries, you need to stock up on food for three or four days before we can get to you, or even a week’, you’re assuming people will have the financial money to do that. Right, it doesn’t sound like a lot of money if you’ve got savings and so on and so forth, but you’ve got to understand that in the current economy, 60 percent of Americans are borrowing money to pay for necessities like rent and food, gasoline and health insurance; 60 percent of our country. So, you know, and they borrow anywhere from $9,000-15,000 a year to stay afloat, and this is a fact. So, in that climate where you say: ‘well just go out and buy this stuff, well they’re not even living paycheck to paycheck. Paycheck to paycheck is even-steven; we’re not even living even-steven. People are borrowing to be able to live. So, so in a case like that where you say to people, well you need to buy all this stuff or go out of town, fill your gas tanks up and go out of town and find hotel rooms, or go travel to another state to go and stay with relatives, well not everybody has that ability to go and do that.”
Q: Do you have any comments or thoughts regarding the Trump administration’s response to evacuation?
Costa: “Well I think it, I think that’s a very, very complicated coordination between Federal resources, state resources and local resources. And I think he’s been very responsive. You know, but again there’s beneficiaries where the communication broke down in Katrina. And it’s very, very premature to look at, you know the response, because we know that the initial response is nothing compared to the response, six months from now and a year from now. You know, when they’re not the front page of the headlines, of headline news, right? With Katrina, the American Red Cross had shelters open two years after Katrina, and the American Red Cross, you know their philosophy is ‘in-and-out’. We come in, we give you temporary shelter, we give you temporary gift cards to get clothing and toothbrushes, right and the bare necessities that you need, we temporarily put you in hotels, and shelters, but everything is temporary so that we can give you some time to come up with your own plan. But unfortunately, what the Red Cross ran into, is trying to solve a poverty situation in New Orleans. There were people who wound up losing the little that they had, and, there was no plan for what they were going to do. They couldn’t move out of the shelters there was nowhere for them to move. There were no economic means for them to do that. And suddenly the Red Cross, who almost went bankrupt, you’ll recall, after Katrina, was you know, had nowhere to put these people. There was nowhere for them to go. Well the Red Cross isn’t designed to solve a poverty problem. So the real test of the Trump administration is not going to come immediately after Harvey, but it’s going to come the many, many, many months later. Let’s take a look then, and see what happens.”