Waiting for Disaster: Changing Reactions to Earthquake Forecasts in Southern California

August 1983 (VOL. 1, NO. 2)

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Several earthquakes near predictions in 1976 initiated a period of waiting in Los Angeles County for a great and destructive earthquake. Hypothesized negative effects of an extended period of waiting under an open-ended threat of disaster include (1) declining sense of urgency and vigilance, (2) disillusionment and disbelief, (3) accumulating anxiety and defensive denial of danger, and (4) resentment and scapegoating. Hypothesized positive effects include (5) familiarization, appreciated, and sensitization, and (6) symbolic and active rehearsal of responses. Interviews with five waves of adult County residents over a period of nearly two years, followed by a sixth wave immediately after a moderate but nondestructive earthquake, provided measures of change and stability of response to earthquake threat. Measures of fear, imminent expectation for a damaging earthquake, household preparedness, confidence in scientific earthquake prediction capability, suspicion that information was being withheld, attitude toward releasing uncertain predictions, focus on scientific as compared with unscientific forecasts, and preferred media source of information on forecasts tend to disconfirm the disillusionment, denial, and scapegoating hypotheses, to support reduced urgency and familiarization hypotheses, and to provide weak support for the rehearsal hypothesis.