A recently developed tool that predicts how people will behave in disaster situations may be able to help if a hurricane like Sandy comes back to call.
Wharton marketing professor Robert Meyer, along with Kenneth Broad, a professor at the University of Miami, recently developed “Stormview simulation,” a program that has been funded by the National Science Foundation.
The simulation, which is 30 to 40 minutes long, recreates the days before a fictional “Hurricane Gabrielle” arrives. The participant is informed of the extent of damage they would face at the end of the hurricane based on preparations they made during the course of the simulation.
“It’s important to put people in a virtual reality when it comes to rare, catastrophic events,” Meyer said. “Inherently, it’s hard to think through a heart attack if you’ve never had a heart attack.”
The simulation goes to great lengths to imitate reality, with people having the option to watch their televisions, go to blogs, listen to the radio and even talk to their neighbors prior to the hurricane hitting. Having been unable to find a suitable weatherman for his fictional televised weather channel, Meyer donned the weatherman suit himself, standing in front of a green screen as he explained how destructive Gabrielle may be.
The simulation, launched for surveying purposes in 2011, has been used to conduct research on human behavior patterns in the days preceding a disaster situation. Since a research paper on the simulation was published in March 2012, Meyer hopes the simulation will be available as a tool to help people prepare themselves for a disaster situation.
“More information and preparation equals better decisions,” he said.
Stephen Phipps, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science who teaches a course on earth systems and Hazards, said the simulation’s attractive interface is one of its strengths.
“Something we really struggle with is imagination,” Phipps said, explaining that the simulation could help in a disaster situation. He added, though, that while the simulation is a good idea, getting people to go through the entire scenario might be a challenge.
Wharton sophomore Samir Saxena echoed Phipps’ concerns about getting people to participate in the simulation. However, Saxena, who took a risk management class last semester, said he would go through the simulation himself before a hurricane hit.
“Just before a hurricane hits, it is often hard to know what news to trust,” Saxena said. “I think since the simulation was developed by experts, I would be more likely to trust information from it.”
The research findings from the simulation have revealed several trends. For example, the simulation found that people who were the most nervous about the storm continued to listen to different neighbors’ opinions until they found an opinion that matched their own.
In addition, it found that the majority of people who are the most underprepared for a storm are those who have been through previous storms and experienced no damage, as compared to groups who have had no prior experience of storms, or those that have experienced damage.
This information on how people would behave in a disaster situation can be helpful to the National Hurricane Center, and has already been helpful to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on whose website the simulation is currently proposed to be posted.
“It will help people imagine the little things,” Saxena said. And in a disaster situation, Meyer believes the little things will count.
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