Typhoon Haiyan: Americans' interest and philanthropy flagging, Pew finds

Americans opened their wallets to relief efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami and massive earthquake in Haiti, disasters that captured their interest. But typhoon Haiyan, so far, is different.

David Guttenfelder/AP
Children who survived typhoon Haiyan play on a destroyed playground in Tacloban, Philippines, Nov. 18. Countless families lost loved ones to the typhoon. Hundreds of thousands of survivors have endured unimaginable suffering. But as the crisis eases and aid begins to flow, hope is flickering.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

When the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 devastated parts of Indonesia, and again when a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, a sizable percentage of Americans followed those natural disasters closely – and opened their wallets to relief efforts in correspondingly high numbers.

But this month’s typhoon Haiyan, which ripped across the midsection of the Philippines – with perhaps the highest sustained winds ever recorded in such a storm and a seawater surge that swamped coastal villages and drowned many hundreds – is not commanding the same levels of attention.

And one result of the less intense interest, a new Pew Research Center survey finds, is that so far Americans are giving less to Haiyan relief efforts than they did in the aftermath of earlier high-profile natural disasters.

What explains the flop that Haiyan is turning out to be on the public-interest meter?

Is it disaster fatigue? Are Americans too preoccupied with another issue in the news, like the troubled rollout of Obamacare, to pay much attention? Are they more focused on domestic disasters – Sandy last year, or this year’s tornadoes? Or are they just heaving a collective sigh at yet another manifestation of a trend toward more extreme weather that climatologists predict will pick up as global warming sets in?

It could be any of those things, survey analysts say, although no one explanation stands out. What is clear, they add, is that Haiyan hasn’t captivated Americans as other recent natural disasters have.

“We found that 32 percent [of respondents] said they were following news about the Philippines storm very closely, and it was clearly not the biggest story of the week,” says Seth Motel, a research assistant at the Pew Center in Washington. “When we asked the same question about the Haiti earthquake, 60 percent said they were following closely,” he adds. “And no other story came close.”

The wide gap between interest in the Haiti earthquake and the Philippines typhoon might be attributed to geographical proximity, Mr. Motel posits – until one considers earlier Pew surveys showing high interest in the tsunami that struck Indonesia and Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in 2011.  

The percentage saying they were “following closely” both the Indian Ocean tsunami and events in Japan in the week after those two disasters was about the same as for Haiti – 58 percent.

The Haiyan story was eclipsed by the Obamacare rollout, with 37 percent saying they were “closely following” that story. But that doesn’t seem to be a high enough degree of public interest to explain the comparatively low interest in Haiyan.

The Pew survey does find that giving in response to disasters tends to track with the level of attention Americans are giving to the story. The survey found that 14 percent of respondents said they had given to storm relief efforts in the week following Haiyan, with another 17 percent saying they planned to give. Those numbers are lower than what surveys found a week after earlier natural disasters that garnered more public attention.  

As for any correlation between low interest in Haiyan and public response – be it resignation or uncertainty – to climate change, Pew’s Motel says it’s a question the public opinion organization will try to clarify in the coming months.

What Pew surveys do show, he notes, is that the view that “there is solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer” has made a comeback in the past few years – after falling from a high in the months after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In Pew’s most recent survey in October, 67 percent of Americans agreed there is “solid evidence” of global warming. That figure is well up from the 57 percent who agreed with the statement in 2009, but still down from the better than three-fourths of Americans – 77 percent – who agreed in 2006, the year after Katrina hit.

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