by Benjamin Sacks
As Hurricane Sandy hits the densely populated US eastern seaboard, commentators and pundits alike compete to depict local reactions and identify those populations who will be hardest hit. Much of the current concern stems from officials’ highly criticised response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (2005), which devastated New Orleans and left at least 1,200 people dead. But, collection and analysis of valuable data on constituency responses, first-aid services, and suggestions for future defences against hurricanes has its own history. Sociologists, political scientists, and geographers have experimented with various field research methods.
In 1855, Andrés Poey, of Havana, organised a list of some 400 hurricanes documented in various forms since Christopher Columbus’s 1492 trans-Atlantic expedition. He hoped, by publishing his tables in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, to advance awareness on hurricane theory: for it had ‘now been proved…that wind, in hurricanes and common gales on both sides of the equator, has two motions; and that it turns or blows round a focus or centre in a more or less circular form’ (p. 291).
Nearly 150 years later, using techniques they had earlier tested in nuclear power accidents, in 1996 Donald J Seigler (Old Dominion University), Stanley D Brunn (University of Kentucky), and James H Johnson, Jr (University of North Carolina) documented their use of small focus groups to learn about hurricane responses and better react to future storms. In December 1992, six months after Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida, the three researchers conducted several focus groups in the Miami area. They believed that their experiment was one of the first implementations of focus groups in post-hurricane emergency planning. Questions were organised around: ‘the pre-impact period’, or preparations for the hurricane; and ‘post-impact period’, or the storm’s psychological, physical, and social consequences. Seigler, Brunn, and Johnson delineated between ‘therapeutic’ and ‘parasitic’/‘exploitative’ responses – unified, communal support versus an “everyone for themselves” mentality (p. 127). The researchers concluded that focused, group discussion in post-disaster scenarios could provide information crucial to more rapid, comprehensive first aid.
For an official U.S. estimate of casualties from Hurricane Katrina (2005), see here (p. 5).
Donald J Seigler, Stanley D Brunn, and James H Johnson, Focusing on Hurricane Andrew through the Eyes of the Victims, Area 28 124-29.
Andrés Puey, A Chronological Table, Comprising 400 Cyclonic Hurricanes Which Have Occurred in the West Indies and the North Atlantic within 362 Years, from 1493-1855: With a Biographical List of 450 Authors, Books, &c., and Periodicals, Where Some Interesting Accounts May be Found, Especially on the West and East Indian Hurricanes [sic], Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 25 291-328.