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Prepared for Natural Disaster? How Children and Families Understand and Make Sense of Natural Disaster Preparedness

Hocke, Tatjana
Committee Members: 
Dr. Michael Palenchar
May 2012

Abstract: Natural disaster risks have increased in the last decades with hurricanes causing billions of dollars in material damages and untold human suffering and death. To reduce natural disaster impact, public relations scholars and practitioners have called for increased pre-crisis preparation. Families with children are one group severely impacted by natural disaster crisis. With only approximately one-third of families in the United States having taken disaster preparedness steps, practitioners and researchers seek new understanding and approaches to increasing family disaster preparedness. However, the research on organizational and societal preparedness remains scarce. Furthermore, public relations scholarship has neglected to target families with children as essential stakeholders for natural disaster preparedness.

This study was designed to bridge both gaps in current public relations scholarship. This grounded theory study explored families’ natural disaster sense-making and natural disaster preparedness levels. Twenty families participated. In each family one parent and at least one child, ranging in age from 8 to 12 years, were interviewed separately. While the 48 in-depth interviews provided the main source of data, field notes and an activation technique during the child interview enriched the data-collection process. The interview transcripts, field notes, and activation technique were analyzed inductively. During the analysis process the categories of family context, natural disaster sense-making, and natural disaster preparedness emerged. These categories connected to the core category of hurricane preparedness.

The categories connected and formed a pattern, which led to the creation of the hurricane preparedness model. This model is an adaptation and extension of the extended parallel processing model (EPPM) (Witte, 1992). The analysis revealed that the family context influenced natural disaster sense-making and, in turn, both the family context and interpretations of natural disasters impacted the levels of preparedness a family had. Hurricane preparedness was revealed as a two-step process. All families had a basic level of preparedness at all times that increased for an acute hurricane threat. These and other findings were integrated with current literature on the EPPM, preparedness, and families with children as stakeholders.