Surprise floods: the role of our imagination in preparing for disasters

Ommer, Joy; Neumann, Jess; Kalas, Milan; Blackburn, Sophie; Cloke, Hannah L.

What’s the worst that could happen? After a flood has devasted communities, those people affected, the news media, and the authorities often say that what happened was beyond our imagination. Imagination encompasses the picturing of a situation in our mind linked with the emotions that we connect with this situation. However, the role imagination actually plays in disasters remains unclear. In this regard, we analysed the responses of a survey which was disseminated in the 2021 flood affected areas of Germany. Some respondents perceived that due to their lack of imagination of the flood, they did not take adequate action in advance. This indicates that imagination plays an important role in disaster preparedness. Limited or lacking imagination could be linked to never having experienced a flood before, difficulties in interpreting forecasts and warnings, the perceived distance to waterbodies, and cognitive biases such as wishful thinking. Based on these results, we recommend future research should investigate to what extend visual support can advance forecast and warning communication in triggering the imagination of citizens in short-term. In a long-term perspective, research should focus how to cultivate imagination over time through participatory risk management, developing climate storylines, citizen weather observations, and the like.

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Ommer, Joy / Neumann, Jess / Kalas, Milan / et al: Surprise floods: the role of our imagination in preparing for disasters. 2024. Copernicus Publications.

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