URI faculty collaborate to prepare Rhode Islanders for hurricanes, other big storms

KINGSTON, R.I., — Jan. 30, 2018 — You’ve given up smoking thanks to a widely successful program pioneered by a University of Rhode Island professor. How about using the same program to prepare for a hurricane?

That’s one of the ideas behind a new project launched by URI researchers seeking better ways to protect the public from natural disasters, sure to get worse as climate change brings more intense storms and rising sea levels.

The team recently published its work in the book “Urban Disaster Resilience and Security: Addressing Risks in Societies” in a chapter called, “Resilience and Thriving in Spite of Disasters: A Stages of Change Approach.”

Combining several fields of study, the researchers are from three different colleges at URI: Norbert Mundorf, professor in the Harrington School of Communication and Media; Colleen Redding, a research professor at the Cancer Prevention Research Center in the College of Health Sciences; James Prochaska, director of the Cancer Prevention Research Center; Andrea Paiva, an assistant research professor at the center; and Pamela Rubinoff, a coastal specialist for the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant.

The readiness program is based on Prochaska’s renowned Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change. Initially applied to smoking cessation and cancer prevention, the model has been helpful in treating more than 50 conditions such as stress, depression, alcohol abuse, sun exposure, lack of exercise and unhealthy eating.

With five stages of change—precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance—the model guides people to healthier lives. The program has been so successful URI researchers are now exploring how it can be used to change the public’s readiness and attitudes toward big storms and hurricanes.

URI talked with the team recently about the project, bracing for the Big One, and the role of social media in weather disasters.

How did this project come about?

Our experience working with adults to prepare for disasters with a Department of Homeland Security initiative taught us that this model could be useful. This led us to work with the Rhode Island Research Alliance to do a pilot project in Westerly High School. Karin Oatley, director of school-based interventions at the Cancer Prevention Research Center, is working with the Westerly superintendent and school committee to make sure that the readiness project with students and their families will be available soon.

Why is this program important now?

Natural disasters and extreme weather events are happening more often, especially in and near coastal communities, like those in Rhode Island, due to sea-level rise and climate change. People living near the coast and in low-lying areas need to be ready for big storms, flooding and possible power outages more often. Being ready can help people weather the storm and recover better.

What can public officials and researchers do to prepare the public for natural disasters?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA) recommend that people have at least three days of water, food, medicine and any other supplies that may be needed if power and/or water services are down. They also suggest developing a plan for emergency contacts and evacuation, if needed, and discussing the plan with everyone in the family.

How important is social media in this effort?

Social media can help keep people informed in real time, spread the word on ways to get ready and help people find the information and resources they may need during and after a big storm.

Why is your team working with high school students?

We think high school students can be enthusiastic and energetic change agents in their families to help them get ready with emergency supplies and a plan. High school students are so familiar with social media that they may be able to easily find resources to share with their families.

Can other communities apply the same model?

Yes, we expect that if this pilot project works out well we would look forward to distributing these resources more widely in Rhode Island and to other states as well.