Coping strategies and trajectories of life satisfaction among households in a voluntary planned program of relocation from a flood risk area


Relocation from areas at risk is a highly effective, yet contested response to natural hazards. Affected households must deal with multiple long-term impacts on their livelihoods and communities. This study explores coping processes of households subjected to a voluntary home buyout scheme in the Danube floodplain in Austria. In a longitudinal study with three yearly waves of semi-structured qualitative interviews, 79 households were monitored over the decision-making, formation, implementation, and stabilization phases of the relocation process. Coping applies not just to those who leave but also to those who stay. Cognitive restructuring, opposition, problem solving, rumination, and escape/avoidance emerge as main coping strategies. These strategies take different characteristics depending on life circumstances and the phase of the relocation process. Most households follow a life satisfaction trajectory of resilience, recovery, or delayed recovery; they either maintain normal functioning or return to it within 5 years after announcement of the relocation program. The relocation stressor plays a minor role compared with family, job, health, and partnership, unless the relocation coincides with a personal crisis that already overstretches coping capacities. Few households exhibit a trajectory of chronic distress and remain deadlocked in social withdrawal or rumination of the lost former residence. Besides material impacts, households show a broad array of psychosocial reactions that need accounting for by cost-benefit assessments of relocation programs. Program managers should encourage positive coping strategies (e.g., support problem solving by formulation of early, structured and realistic plans) and discourage negative strategies (e.g., pre-empt opposition with citizen participation).

Keywords: resettlement, managed retreat, quality of life, psychosocial wellbeing, resilience, household recovery