Tuesday morning's tsunami warning was a wake-up call for many West Coast residents, judging from the steady stream of shoppers leaving the Total Prepare store outside Victoria later that day with backpacks full of emergency supplies.

But are the people at the highest risk doing more to prepare for disaster?

A pair of University of Victoria studies have found that even when people know they live in higher risk locations for an earthquake or tsunami, they don't do much more than everyone else to get ready.

"It's strange they know they're at a greater risk objectively but they don't feel they're at a higher risk in terms of whether something's going to happen to them," Robert Gifford, a UVic professor of psychology and environmental studies, told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

One of Gifford's studies explored the awareness and attitudes of 50 people living in Greater Victoria on soft landfill, which is at high risk in an earthquake, and 50 people living in low-risk, rocky locations in the city. 

The people in the high risk "red zone" know on average that they're at a higher seismic risk, but what's different is their perception of risk, Gifford said.

"Possibly...it's a kind of self-protective mechanism," he said. "'Yes, I know it's at greater risk but I think it's going to be OK.'"

Gifford said people use several common rationalizations to avoid taking measures to prepare for a disaster.

The rationalizations, which he calls "dragons of inaction," include: "Well it's not my responsibility, the government should be doing something about it;" "What can I do about an earthquake, it's beyond my control;" and "It's just not going to happen.'"

Gifford also studied the attitudes of 75 Victoria residents living in moderate- to high-risk locations for tsunamis (less than four metres above sea level). He wanted to identify which psychological factors predict who prepares for a tsunami and who doesn't.

Fear of tsunamis a motivator 

"We looked at over 20 different psychological factors that might predict preparedness because our ultimate goal is to get people to prepare," he said.

The strongest predictors of preparedness turned out to be having a positive attitude about being able to do something about the risk, and fear of tsunamis.

In both studies, he said, the main motivators for people who prepare are having a sense of perceived control, and having a sense of personal responsibility, "as opposed to saying 'the government should be protecting me."


With files from CBC Radio One's On the Island.