Hope fueled by optimism tops the list. Despite predictions based on nature’s documented history, scientific research and calculated probabilities, people tend to think that natural disasters, while possible, will somehow not occur or affect them. This is a form of denial, a common psychological response in the face of potential adversity.
Although generally aware of nature’s threats, many have faith that technology will effectively resist and even control natural forces. Indeed, designing and constructing buildings requires confronting nature to successfully withstand gravity, wind, earthquakes and moisture. Likewise, dams, levees and diversion channels are built to manage the flow of water and control flooding. Yet, our best technical efforts can never completely avert catastrophic outcomes.
Aesthetic benefits — scenic views, beautiful natural surroundings, proximity to desirable recreational amenities, desire for privacy — induce people to inhabit risky sites. This is why expensive homes get built on steep, potentially unstable slopes or escarpments subject to erosion and mudslides; next to shorelines and beachfronts susceptible to destructive hurricane-force winds and storm surges or in arid climates on parcels covered with dense, oil-rich vegetation that can easily catch fire and rapidly burn.
People also willingly discount nature’s threats to property because of expected economic benefits. Such property might be relatively inexpensive but usable. It might encompass exploitable natural resources and have access to nearby commercial markets. Why else would one develop and cultivate land downstream from a designated spillway in Louisiana, land slated to be purposely inundated in the event of a 100-year Mississippi River flood?
Strong sentiment and a profound sense of rootedness might be the most powerful motivations for people’s willingness to place themselves in harm’s way. Affection for a familiar place and emotional ties to the land, to its culture and traditions, can trump concerns about nature’s possible threats.
Ever since learning to read, I recall seeing yearly springtime news reports about the Mississippi River overflowing its banks and wreaking havoc on levees, farmland, homes and towns. The same tragic reports and photos appeared year after year. And, evidently afflicted every year by the Mississippi’s inevitable rise, flood victims with insurance file claims to cover rebuilding, often in the very same flood plain. Regrettably, these properties, settled decades ago, remain chronically at risk. Neither property owners nor governments can afford the expense of relocation.