Why do People Choose to Live in Harm's Way?

Maybe the wind is shifting, the air is cooling, and the fires are coming under control.  Still plenty of pain to go around.

In the meantime, some of you have posted a difficult question in the last couple of days: why, when people know it's risky to live in the California hills, do they do it anyway?  Don't they know better?  Santa Ana winds are a regular feature of fall there, drought is a growing reality, and let's not even get into the issue of earthquakes.

We've done stories on this before, and the answer seems to be that the very things that sometimes make a place hazardous also make it appealing.  Most people probably don't choose where in the country to live--they're there because of jobs or family or birth--but when they do, they don't see crisis looming.

In the years following Hurricane Andrew, Prof. Jay Baker of Florida State University was commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers to survey people along the Atlantic Coast.  He found people very aware of the risk--but not worried that it would affect them personally.  Their daily reality is that it's nice to be near the ocean.

"Even in places that had very severe hurricane experiences, over time people tend to forget quite how bad it was," he told me a few years ago.

"More people think that they would be safe in a major hurricane in North Carolina today than believed that in 1995."

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel economics winner at Princeton, has also looked at this issue.  In essence, he argues, people in California may know, at least in the abstract, that they potentially live in harm's way--but in their day-to-day lives, they see sunny weather and pretty views. 

Dan Cray has a piece in Time in which he quotes Kahneman: "People are terrified of the word nuclear, but the people who live next to a nuclear station are perfectly content with it." People, he says, "become much less frightened when something hasn't blown up in several years."

Wildfires?  For most people, goes this argument, they're an abstract threat.  Thoughts welcome, as always.

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