After the flood disaster, politicians are discussing earlier and more precise warnings. Nice and good. But hand on heart: Who really expects a flood just because the warning app is making noises again?
When the sirens wail in war zones, people seek shelter in bunkers. When sirens wail in Germany, most people assume that it is a test run.
Now the comparison may sound far-fetched. But several times the images of rubble and craters left by the floods of the past few days have been associated with remains after a war.
But why did very few people expect a flood disaster when the warning apps buzzed on smartphones last week and announced heavy rain. Why do people go for a jog when meteorologists are warning of thunderstorms? True to the motto: The chalice will pass me by.
From the point of view of Ortwin Renn, an expert in environmental and risk sociology, this is mainly due to the fact that Germany has largely got off well when it comes to natural hazards. Property damage remains, but it rarely involves so many human lives. ‘We have a long experience with the fact that it ends lightly,’ says the director at the Institute for Transformative Sustainability Research in Potsdam. Even flood-tested people often assumed that if there was a warning, it was enough to put sandbags in front of the doors.
In addition, Germans tend to name technical dangers that they fear in surveys. ‘Nature is more like a park with ducks and swans,’ says the professor. ‘Not as a force of nature with violence.’ In Italy, for example, people have a different relationship to earthquakes, says Renn. He compares that with the corona pandemic: ‘All other epidemics of the past decades have passed us by.’ At first, many underestimated Corona. ‘Then they noticed: we are vulnerable.’
Politicians are now discussing civil protection in Germany and whether warnings can be given earlier and more precisely. Local heavy rain events cannot be predicted very precisely. “Not even with the best meteorology,” stresses Renn. ‘A somewhat more realistic assessment of the suddenness and violence of storms must penetrate the conscious mind.’
Gerd Gigerenzer calls it risk competence. The director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the University of Potsdam has devoted himself to the question of why we fear being eaten by a shark – but do not waste any thought on the fact that we are on the way to the beach could die in a car accident. Partly it has to do with “biological learning”, partly with “social learning”, he writes in his book “Risk”.
The professor cites the fear of snakes and spiders as an example, although very few in this country are poisonous. ‘If we had to learn through personal experience whether an animal poses a lethal threat, we would have a very limited life expectancy,’ he writes. ‘The fear object is genetically’ prepared ‘, but in order to activate fear, a social impulse is required.’
From Gigerenzer’s point of view, it is important to be able to assess risks well – even if all the facts are not on the table. The first thing in his book he mentions, of all things, weather reports and that many do not know how to correctly interpret the probability of rain. Sometimes there is a lack of the necessary training in schools, complains Gigerenzer. In some cases, however, experts would never have learned how to correctly explain probabilities.
And even if: people think differently. Some are more on the alert, others more relaxed. Actually, you should address them differently, says Renn. Make it clear to some that they too can be hit by a violent storm. For others, that not every rain shower leads to flooding.
Especially since too much panic is not a solution either. Without the assumption that you will get away with it yourself, that the catastrophe does not hit you yourself, we would not be able to act “because of the sheer imagined and possible catastrophes that could occur”, formulates Isabella Heuser. The director of the clinic and university outpatient department for psychological medicine at the Charité Berlin calls this a psychological protective mechanism.
On the other hand, people became dulled and got used to the alarm if there were constant warnings, explains the professor. ‘Especially since we have been constantly warned of dangers (pandemic) for a year.’ She calls this disaster burnout.
So gloomy prospects? Environmental sociologist Renn says: ‘The more the flood events fade, the sooner we will revert to old routines.’ He recommends exercises ‘to keep us awake’. Many of them do not even know how to behave in such a situation that, for example, one should not necessarily bring the photo albums in the basement to the dry.
And it pays to think about special warning levels, he says. “If the app warns you every day, you think: ‘So what?’”. Another alarm threshold could be helpful here – even if precise statements about where disasters are threatening are only possible at very short notice.