A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Natural Disaster Response: The Northwest Italy Floods of 1994 Compared to the U.S Midwest Floods of 1993.

August 2001 (VOL. 19, NO. 2)

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The observation that similar types of natural disasters produce different reactions based on a particular culture and location demands a thorough and detailed analysis, because the reasons are likely to be numerous and complex. Although the economic situation, political organization, and technological infrastructure of communities are fundamental factors, they do not offer a complete explanation of people’s behavior in the face of risk and disasters. This article uses a cross-cultural perspective to clarify the relationship between two cultures and their different patterns of response to extreme flood events. The research was carried out in two Western societies, the United States and Italy, both of which have similar socioeconomic characteristics, but distinctly different historical and cultural traditions. The disaster studies were the Po River Valley floods of November 1994 in northwest Italy and the Mississippi River- Missouri River floods in the U.S. upper Midwest during the summer of 1993. These two extreme floods were analyzed with respect to the pattern of human response during the preparation, rescue, recovery, and reconstruction phases. The study includes both human-response and cross-cultural analyses. A questionnaire was employed to gauge the perception of the flood disasters by the Italian and American disaster managers. The cross-cultural analysis was performed using an etic-emic contrast. The results showed that the different human responses observed in the floods of northwestern Italy and of the Unites States Midwest were linked to basic differences in four cultural elements: (1) experience with floods, (2) socio-political traditions and organization, (3) level of integration within the community, and (4) perception of the physical environment.