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The psychology behind the pre-hurricane run to the grocery store

Why some people buy Pop-Tarts and liquor before a hurricane — and some people don’t prepare at all.

People shopping at a Food Town grocery store during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 30, 2017, in Houston, Texas.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Florida’s government ordered at least 120,000 people from the panhandle to evacuate in preparation for Hurricane Michael’s landfall on Wednesday. The effects of the Category 4 storm will be felt not only on the state’s coast, but in Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas, which are still recovering from Hurricane Florence. These effects include life-threatening winds and coastal flooding that could reach 9 to 14 feet in some areas. A Category 4 storm has never made landfall in this region of Florida.

While the conditions have caused some to flee the coast, as always, there are those who are staying put and preparing to weather the storm. Hurricane prep includes sealing windows and doors, boarding up windows, and shopping for the essentials like food, water, and batteries. This scurry for supplies often leads to chaos.

Frenzied grocery stores are a common, understandable side effect of hurricane preparation. The stores stock extra cases of water, batteries, and toilet paper in anticipation of crowds, and the stereotype is that people stock up on bread, milk, and eggs. But there’s more to hurricane preparation than the basics; while some people buy comfort foods, others don’t prepare at all. Why some people indulge and others ignore has a lot to do with how we feel safe in this country, and whom we trust to warn us when disaster hits.

Why Walmart stocks up on strawberry Pop-Tarts

When Hurricane Isaac was descending on Louisiana in 2012, Elyria Kemp was there to study how people felt about the disaster. In her 2014 report “The Calm before the Storm: Examining Emotion Regulation Consumption in the Face of an Impending Disaster,” she detailed the heightened emotions residents experienced in the lead-up to the storm, and what they consumed because of them.

The most common emotional responses were anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness. And the most common purchases? Unsurprisingly, bottled water, batteries, and flashlights, but also cookies, chips, and alcohol. “These negative emotional experiences lead them to not only purchase the necessities one may need during a hurricane; they also would buy hedonic products,” Kemp says.

The tendency of those bracing for a hurricane to stockpile junk food has been well-documented. In 2004, Walmart reported that it orders extra strawberry Pop-Tarts before a hurricane because sales spike significantly. Liquor and beer sales also rise, and many people throw hurricane parties. Milk, bread, and eggs have also been noticed as a natural disaster preparation trifecta (dubbed the Trinity of Winter-Storm Panic-Shopping by the Atlantic), despite their short shelf life.

In September, the Charlotte Observer reported that “jugs of milk and loaves of bread were flying off the shelves” by those preparing for Hurricane Florence, to which one reader commented: “You want to know why other parts of the country think Southerners are dumb? Well, if you expect to be without power for days or weeks, loading up on the 2 most perishable items (milk, bread) is about the dumbest thing you can do.”

But what said reader and many others may not understand is that buying food before a hurricane is equal parts survival and sanity. According to Kemp’s research, people bought high-fat, perishable foods to promote comfort and calmness, not because they thought these were practical purchases.

It’s called emotion-regulation consumption — the idea is if someone is stuck waiting for a stressful situation like a hurricane to befall them, consuming the foods they like can lower stress and make them happier. “Positive emotions have the ability to undo the effects of negative emotions, so that’s why we purchase these products,” Kemp says.

One loaf of bread seen on a grocery store shelf as people prepared for Hurricane Matthew to make landfall in Florida in 2016.
AFP/Getty Images

Why some people don’t prepare

However, not everyone will be feasting during Hurricane Michael. According to Jay Shimshack, an associate professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, some people won’t even have purchased the essentials like bottled water, flashlights, and batteries.

His 2018 study “Disaster preparedness and disaster response: Evidence from sales of emergency supplies before and after hurricanesgathered grocery store scanner data from 2002 to 2012 to record what people bought and when during all US hurricanes. Shimshack’s team found that although many people buy hurricane preparedness supplies roughly one day before landfall, many buy them afterward, often after the government has warned residents to be off the roads.

“There are people buying things ahead of time, but maybe fewer than you might imagine, and right before the storm, which is not consistent with the advice they are being given,” Shimshack says. “There are also big increases in sales relative to what we would expect them to be after the storm makes landfall. And that suggests people have a need.”

He says this information suggests that residents were not prepared beforehand, and there could be a few reasons for that. One is that people may not be receiving information about a threat, and if they are, they are not perceiving the information as a threat to them personally.

Historically, Shimshack says, the number of direct deaths — fatalities due to wind or storm surges — outnumbered the number of indirect deaths, fatalities caused by things like downed power lines or people driving in a flood. But in 2000, those numbers reversed, and now there are more indirect fatalities. In other words, many are dying because they are unaware of how dangerous the situation actually is.

Shimshack says it also could be the “ostrich effect” — a term referring to those who avert attention from damaging but important information, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. And of course, he says, it could be optimism bias, where a person thinks they are at less risk for experiencing a negative event compared to others — the “but that would never happen to me” mentality.

Just like a smoker is aware of how dangerous cigarettes are but doesn’t think the dangers will affect them, it’s possible that those who don’t prepare have watched the news and seen the damage that other Category 4 hurricanes cause, but they just don’t think it will happen to them. Optimism bias is also more likely to play a role in decision-making around infrequent events, such as a hurricane.

Preparation divides often fall along racial and economic lines

But there is one factor that implies that it’s messaging, not mindset, that leads to complacency — the stark sociodemographic differences between those who bought supplies before hurricane landfall and those who bought it after. According to Shimshack’s research, those who bought supplies before landfall tended to be higher-income, more educated, and whiter. Those who bought after tended to be less educated, lower-income minorities who are “less likely to receive, trust and respond to risk information,” Shimshack says — especially when that information is coming from government sources.

According to the study, African Americans have an unusually large increase in purchases of emergency supplies after landfall, which suggest that African Americans have the greatest need following a hurricane.

To improve this, Shimshack says that new targeted messaging campaigns should be created to reach at-risk populations, as it’s dangerous for people to be shopping during the life-threatening situations hurricanes sometimes create. “It suggests our public policy may be working well for some groups and is working far less well for other groups, and we may need a different approach,” he says.

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