Initial Publication Date: April 11, 2014

Social Amplification of Risk Framework applied to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita

Tatjana Magdalena Hocke-Mirzashvili, James Madison University


In 2005, thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees relocated to Houston, TX. With a temporarily changed city-scape and the pictures of New Orleans' destruction on Houstonians' minds, fear was high when hurricane Rita was predicted to make landfall just four weeks after Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact.

Although weather predictions and Houston's location were very different from Hurricane Katrina, many Houstonians feared Rita's possible destruction. In the days before the storm, one of the US' largest evacuations was underway, when between 2 and 3 million people tried to leave the greater Houston area.

Hurricane Rita caused relatively little damage in Houston itself and few, if any, deaths were attributed to the hurricane directly. In contrast, the evacuation created many problems, caused health issues, and most deaths were attributed to the evacuation efforts.

With just four weeks between these two storms, they provide a unique opportunity to explore risk perceptions and sense making of scientific data. Using the Social Amplification of Risk Framework, this case study analysis the power of risk perceptions, communication, and factors impacting how communities make sense of and react to hurricane risks.

Individuals with expertise/responsibilities in the following areas have helped create the case study:
  • People living in the greater Houston area
  • Evacuees from New Orleans
  • City Officials and Emergency Planers
  • Media personnel

Key teaching points:
SARF's two main stages:
  1. transmission of information about a risk event to amplification stations
    • risk information (either from direct experience or vicarious experience) is processed by amplification stations [e.g., Hurricane Katrina and the devastation]
    • amplification stations process the information and amplify or attenuate it through analysis and communication [e.g., media, people in Houston, evacuees, government officials, experts, emergency managers]
    • social sense making of the risk event and its impact [e.g., high level of threat from Hurricane Rita is perceived]
    • action is taken in respect to the risk [e.g., large scale evacuation]
  2. response mechanisms or rippling effects within society
    • risk event influences changes in society [e.g., learning for future storms, evacuations, and building codes]
    • influence can reach to seemingly unrelated areas of society

How this example is used in the classroom:
  1. As homework review information about Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Focus specifically on the response in anticipation to both hurricanes, the destruction caused, and the aftermath. Please pay special attention to the impacts of both storms on the Houston area. You can use the resources provided but you should find additional information so you understand the situation for both hurricanes.
  2. Read both articles explaining the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF)
  3. In class we will first share the information discovered about the hurricanes and their impact. Then we will discuss and apply SARF. After we completed this analysis, we will also discuss the role of risk communication in influencing risk perceptions and actions.
(To further explore SARF, it would also be possible to also analyze Hurricane Ike.)


Brodie, M., Weltzien, E., Altman, D., Blendon, R. J., & Benson, J. M. (2006). Experiences of Hurricane Katrina Evacuees in Houston Shelters: Implications for Future Planning. American Journal of Public Health, 96(8), 1402–1408. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2005.084475.

Connelly, R., Hafner, R., & Spivak, T. (2005, September 8). Katrina & The Waves. Houston gets hit with its own hurricane surge. HoustonPress News. Retrieved from

Kasperson, R. E., Renn, O., Slovic, P., Brown, H. S., Emel, J., Goble, R., Kasperson, J. X., & Ratick, S. (1988). The social amplification of risk. A conceptual framework. Risk Analysis, 8(2), 177-187.

Kasperson, R. E. (1992). The social amplification of risk: Progress in developing an integrative framework. In S. Krimsky & D. Golding (Eds.), Social theories of risk (pp. 153-178). Westport, CT: Praeger.

YouTube Video: Hurricane Rita: Evacuation Nightmare

USA Today article: Evacuation worked, but created a highway horror

Houston Press article: Katrina & The Waves article comparing Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with a focus on government actions and political decisions: Side-By-Side: Hurricane Katrina v Hurricane Rita