Reading Hurricane Katrina: Information Sources and Decision-making in Response to a Natural Disaster

Social Epistemology 23 (3):361-380 (2011)
Abstract
In this paper we analyze results from 114 face-to-face qualitative interviews of people who had evacuated from the New Orleans area in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, interviews that were completed within weeks of the 2005 storm in most cases. Our goal was to understand the role information and knowledge played in people's decisions to leave the area. Contrary to the conventional wisdom underlying many disaster communication studies, we found that our interviewees almost always had extensive storm-related information from a variety of sources, including media reports and (in many cases) other background knowledge gleaned from experiences with previous storms, often from interpersonal sources. However, consistent with a theme in communication research that has been identifiable since at least the 1940s, interpersonal communication networks were most often what ultimately caused these individuals to act on this information, and therefore those with “weak ties” (a concept borrowed from sociology) to the broader “mainstream” community may have been disadvantaged, slower to leave, and thus more vulnerable to the storm's main effects. From our evidence, the end result was less a function of discrimination as it was one of differential activation of a relevant social network. These results argue for the rejection of a “deficit model” that assumes varied reactions to natural disaster result from some kind of an information deficiency, and remind us that behavior under such circumstances is the result of a process of collective behavior, not only individual cognition
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