How Cultural Beliefs Shape Natural Disaster Recovery and Preparedness

Article ID: 522571

Released: 7-Aug-2006 6:35 PM EDT

Source Newsroom: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

  • Credit: Tom Paradise

    Hotel Saada in Agadir, Morocco, before and after an earthquake devastated the city in 1960. Researchers at the University of Arkansas are studying how survivors and current residents perceive earthquake preparedness and risk.

  • Credit: Tom Paradise

    This is an example of a building where the walls are not reinforced, which will endanger the building's occupants and passersby in the event of an earthquake.

  • This image shows the faults that run through the modern-day city as it looked in 2002.

  • Since the earthquake in 1960, Agadir, which killed 15,000 and left 35,000 survivors homeless, the city has rebuilt and grown into a popular resort town with a population of 680,000. This photo, taken in 2005, shows the beachfront growth.

Newswise — A University of Arkansas researcher and his colleagues have found that fatalistic religious beliefs can affect how people perceive risk and recover from natural disasters and how these attitudes shape the way cities are rebuilt.

Survivors' memories and residents' attitudes about an earthquake that destroyed a Moroccan city more than 40 years ago are giving these researchers insights into how cultural attitudes can shape adherence to safety standards.

Tom Paradise, director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, and his colleagues will publish their findings in upcoming issues of Environmental Hazards and the Journal of North African Studies.

Just before midnight on Feb. 29, 1960, the second night of Ramadan, the resort town of Agadir, Morocco, experienced two moderate earthquakes that leveled the city and killed at least 15,000 people, about a third of the city's population. "There are very few natural disasters that took place in the 20th century where there was such a massive loss of life, and those who didn't die in the quake were severely injured," Paradise said. Most of the people who weren't killed were injured. At least 35,000 people were left homeless, with people living on the beach for lack of shelter.

Today, 46 years later, Agadir has rebuilt and experienced explosive growth, with a population of more than 680,000 people. The town is a prime tourist destination with 21,000 hotel beds, an international airport and premium beachfront resorts " all built on the faults that shifted in the 1960 earthquake.

Paradise began his study because he had noticed in his work as a geomorphologist and architectural conservator that many countries failed to enforce building standards, even when they had them. He found that when he made suggestions for reinforcement of structures in his role as a consultant, people often responded to him with an Arabic phrase that means, roughly, "God is the answer" " "Allahu 'alem."

"It was a different sort of attitude," Paradise said. "We wanted to find out what is creating this culture of substandard construction."

Agadir seemed like a good place to examine the relationships between culture and perception of risk, Paradise said, because the city was destroyed and re-built in many places without standardized iron/steel reinforcement that could help protect its citizens and buildings in the event of another earthquake. It was found that even in structures with iron/steel reinforcement, filled-in brick between the reinforced columns is done with non-integrated mortar and brick; such that when quaking occurs, this unconnected infilling either falls inward, killing or injuring the residents, or falls outward to the street.

Paradise and his colleagues spent a month in Agadir, where they found more than 100 survivors of the 1960 earthquake and about 200 of their children or relatives. Using a combination of Arabic, Italian, English, French and Berber, they conducted extensive interviews that often lasted for hours and brought strong emotions to the forefront. Some of the people they encountered had lost every living blood relative they had in the earthquake. Others had lost parents, siblings, husbands, wives, children or close friends.

"There were times when we all just lost it," Paradise said, as people broke down and cried while recalling the devastation, triggering tears from the survey team as well.

The researchers also asked the residents to fill out forms with questions about the perceptions, judgments and conclusions they drew from the event.

They found that most people placed more faith in their beliefs than in the buildings. "If you were devout you were saved," Paradise said. Survivors suggested that others may have died because they were munafiq, hypocrites, and said they believed the Muslim tenets but did not follow these teachings. The survivors cited not following the pillars of Islam, eating pork and drinking liquor as examples. These beliefs were linked to educational level, but even a third of well-educated Muslims with a baccalaureate or higher said they believed that God determined who lived and who died in the Agadir earthquake.

Further, most people didn't understand safe building construction; they thought that as long as concrete was used, a building would be safe from earthquakes."They didn't understand that reinforcement is important, not just the material," he said. Many buildings constructed in Agadir today continue to be built with partial reinforcement or completely without reinforcement, leaving the walls vulnerable to collapse.

The researchers found that people got much of their information about earthquakes from television, but that the people who did so were more often men than women."Most homes have no or old televisions," Paradise said. But men gather in cafes to play cards and backgammon, and the cafes frequently have televisions.

"This raises the question of how you inform the women about earthquakes," Paradise said.

As the generation who survived the earthquake ages, the perceptions of danger continue to fade from the collective consciousness.

"The children of survivors often had a much more romantic view of earthquakes," Paradise said. "The survivors repeatedly said that nothing in Agadir is safe." Many of the children of survivors grew up using the rubble of the town as their playground. They tended to roll their eyes and sigh when older relatives brought up the perils of the historic earthquake.

Paradise is a professor of geosciences in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and the coordinator of its new Historic Preservation Program beginning this fall.


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