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Researchers to study public support for reducing disaster risk in Latin America and the Caribbean
Construction workers build a new floor on a house in Huamanga, Peru on July 10, 2013. Peru suffers from frequent and fierce earthquakes, so strong columns are needed to withstand nature's forces. The iron skeletons for such columns around which the concrete will be cast. (BirgirNiss/iStock Photo)

Researchers to study public support for reducing disaster risk in Latin America and the Caribbean

October 19, 2020 at 3:45pm

A team of researchers from FIU’s Extreme Events Institute is studying Latin American and Caribbean public support for policies that reduce deaths, injuries, and property losses from disasters – and how experiencing a major hurricane, earthquake, or other “extreme event” changes those support levels.

The goal of the research, funded by a three-year, two-phase grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is to help reduce the loss of life and property from extreme events such as hurricanes and earthquakes in one of the most hazard-prone regions of the world. The Extreme Events Institute research team, alongside FIU’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, will work collaboratively with Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP).

“This research is crucial because risk reduction policies get ahead of disasters to save lives and reduce harm and destruction,” said Barry Levitt, the principal investigator on the study, chair of the FIU department of politics and international relations, and a fellow at FIU’s Extreme Events Institute. “But these policies work best when supported by the public, so we need to better understand how and when that support emerges.”

The research will be conducted in two phases. First, the team will design and deploy public opinion surveys in 16 Latin American countries as well as the U.S. The surveys will assess people’s perceptions of disaster risk – how likely they think they are to be harmed by an extreme event – and their attitudes towards key disaster risk reduction measures, such as stronger land use and building codes.

Then, when an earthquake or hurricane strikes somewhere in Latin America or the Caribbean, the team will deploy a special post-disaster survey in the affected country, asking similar questions, and compare it to the baseline survey data collected in advance. The project will be the first-ever to systematically study public support for disaster risk reduction policies before and after a disaster.

A lack of public support often means that disaster risk reduction policies, even when they reflect best practices, aren’t followed or enforced, Levitt explained.

“When these policies have low levels of public support, sometimes they don’t work the way they are supposed to – builders may not comply fully, and authorities are less willing or less able to enforce them,” Levitt said. “Public opinion and the politics of disaster risk reduction are as important as the technical details of the policies.”

Land use and building code failures – where policies meant to protect people and structures are weak or not implemented – account for most deaths, injuries, and property losses in disasters according to Richard Olson, director of FIU’s Extreme Events Institute.

“But when there’s public support, especially after a disaster, a window of opportunity opens for political leaders to do the right thing – to improve the rigor and enforcement of building and land use codes – and save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in the future,” Olson said.

Despite many disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean, prior research has typically focused on single countries or communities, Levitt explained, but this new project is intentionally regional.

“We chose to focus on Latin America and the Caribbean for two reasons. First, the region experiences a wide range of different extreme events, including earthquakes and hurricanes. Second, we have particular expertise here at FIU in this part of the world,” Levitt said. “It’s a perfect synergy of skills, experience, and resources.”

The multi-disciplinary research team draws on faculty expertise from political science, public administration, Latin American studies and civil and environmental engineering, among other fields. It’s important to study extreme events from a multifaceted approach, Levitt said, because no single discipline can “see” all of the different dimensions of disasters.

The NSF grant will help this diverse team to share their findings with the international research community, as well as with the public, governments, and non-profit stakeholders.