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Linda Smoot, a resident of Lake Charles, Louisiana, returned from a shelter after Hurricane Laura in August to find storm damage at her niece’s home.

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

For scientists studying ‘disaster fatigue,’ this has been a year like no other

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation.

It’s been an unimaginable year for residents of Lake Charles, Louisiana. First came the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused at least 8700 cases in the community of 78,000 along the Gulf of Mexico. Then came two record-breaking hurricanes. In late August, Hurricane Laura made landfall nearby, ultimately killing 77 people and leaving 46,000 homes damaged or destroyed, including many in Lake Charles. Just 6 weeks later, in October, Hurricane Delta tore through the same area, leaving four dead. Residents of Lake Charles hadn’t even finished rebuilding from the first storm when the second arrived.

Nobody hopes for such misfortune. But for social scientists, the disasters that have struck Lake Charles and other communities this year have provided a rare opportunity to study how people weigh and respond to different kinds of risks. In Lake Charles, for example, people twice had to weigh the perils of trying to ride out an oncoming hurricane against the risk of contracting COVID-19 if they evacuated to a packed emergency shelter. In California and other states, residents faced similar choices when confronted with several waves of massive wildfires.

The researchers say their surveys and interviews have revealed that such stress can induce what they call “disaster fatigue”—a form of emotional exhaustion that can reshape how people make choices. And that fatigue, they say, could have major implications for emergency planners trying to encourage people to get out of harm’s way. Along the Gulf Coast, for instance, it was difficult get people to prepare for a second hurricane even as they were still digging out from the first, says Laura Myers, a social scientist at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. It was “just really hard to get their attention … [and] to get them to step up and do all the preparation,” she says.

Even before the U.S. hurricane season began in June, Jennifer Collins, a severe weather scientist at the University of South Florida, began to explore how people might respond to evacuation orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She and her collaborators received more than 7000 responses to a survey sent to Florida residents. Nearly 75% of respondents perceived the hypothetical risk of evacuating to a shelter—and potentially exposing themselves to COVID-19—as more dangerous than sheltering in place.

But in September, when her team sent a similar survey to residents in areas affected by Hurricane Laura, Collins saw some shift in perceptions in the 300 responses. Some of those who said they had sheltered in place during Laura—enduring winds of more than 200 kilometers per hour and storm surges that reached 5 meters—admitted they’d never do so again. “Very scary. Could have been killed,” wrote one survey respondent. “[I will] never stay for [a] Category 2 or above storm again,” another wrote.

And a preliminary analysis revealed the respondents were more evenly divided on whether the hurricane or COVID-19 posed a greater risk; about 60% said they perceived shelters as more dangerous than riding out the storm. Overall, however, Collins says people were “more concerned about their day-to-day survival” in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura, and “the national health crisis really took a backseat to that basic need for survival.”

When Hurricane Delta arrived a few weeks later, that focus on day-to-day recovery made it even harder for emergency managers and broadcast meteorologists to mobilize residents, says Myers, who spoke with officials in the days leading up to Hurricane Delta. People “were fatigued,” she says. “And it wasn’t just the fatigue from Laura, it was the COVID fatigue. It’s like, how many other things can they deal with? How much risk can they contend with? A lot of people [said]: ‘I’ve done all I can do, I’ve done the best I can do, and we’ll just see how it plays out.’”

Luckily, researchers say, that fatigue didn’t translate into a large number of fatalities. But it appears to have left many people facing mental health challenges, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

There isn’t a single strategy for combating disaster fatigue, says Tara Powell, a behavioral health expert at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. But the current studies could help researchers and emergency planners tailor interventions to specific communities and individuals, she says, helping them not only prepare for impending disasters, but also recover in the aftermath. In the meantime, she and other researchers are hoping the kind of disaster fatigue they documented this year proves to be the exception, and not the rule.