The Cyberattack on Colonial Oil we mentioned in our Cyber Crime 101 post has continued to have an impact at the community level, especially on the East Coast. Shortages of gas have caused high prices, long lines, and hoarding behaviors by American consumers. Panic buying, or the phenomena or over-purchasing a product in fear of it running out, also occurred in the early parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, most commonly with toilet paper.
As Emergency Managers, we know the public response to a disaster can make the original emergency better or worse. Panic buying is one reaction that is not helpful in a disaster, and should be curbed if at all possible.
Fear, Control, and Decision Making
Panic Buying occurs because it speaks to our psychological need to control uncertain situations. Think back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic: how much information did you know? How much of that information was conflicted? Did you shop for hand sanitizer and toilet paper “just in case”? According to consumer psychologists, shopping can provide comfort during uncertain times by giving the consumer a small aspect of the disaster they can handle themselves. You cannot control a pandemic, or a company’s cybersecurity, but maybe you can guarantee that your family has enough supplies before a shortage. This need to create a security out of insecurity is what drives this panic-induced hoarding.
Another psychological factor contributing to panic buying is herd mentality. We want to believe that we are smart, rational creatures, and usually we are outside of an emergency. During a disaster, however, judgement is impaired and our brains are less likely to weigh all of the facts before making a decision. The human brain developed in a way to facilitate making quick reactions during stressful situations, reactions commonly referred to “Fight, Flight, or Freeze“. Herd mentality is a natural extension to that behavior. If a herd of people are running away or towards something, it may be wise to run with them and find out the details later. Panic buying, for better or worse, stems from a psychological protective strategy where we take in outside social information (“everyone is buying gas”) and apply it to ourselves (“perhaps I should buy some too!”).
Shortages: A Self Fulfilling Prophecy
Despite our mental hardwiring for stress behaviors like panic buying, experts advise not to overconsume goods during an emergency. One of the biggest reasons to not engage in panic buying is that it creates and worsens supply shortages. As a result of the Darkside attack, states all along the Southeast Coast reported gas outages, with up to 65% of gas stations in North Carolina running out. Some took this as a sign that they needed to stock up on gas. Viral photos and video emerged of people filling up makeshift containers to bring their extra fuel home with them. However, if supplies are already limited, hoarding gas will only make fuel more scarce for others. Gas that could have been distributed among several cars becomes hoarded by panic buyers in large quantities, depleting the supply that much faster. At a large enough scale, this could get to the point where there is not enough to supply emergency response vehicles, transport, and other crucial infrastructure, exacerbating the disaster.
Unlike toilet paper that can sit on a shelf if left unused, gasoline has a shelf life of approximately 6 months and is highly flammable. Hoarded quantities gas will likely degrade or be destroyed if not used in a timely manner or stored improperly, making hoarding of this particular good wasteful and dangerous.
Planning in advance of a disaster can help curb the desire to partake in panic buying. Energy.gov, a website ran by the United States Department of Energy, suggests being patient at the gas pumps and only buying according to your immediate short-term needs. They also recommend using additional information sources, such as gasbuddy.com, to keep track of where gas is available. Local media outlets and local emergency guidance will also help you in making decisions on how to respond to a disaster and potential shortages. Lastly, FEMA emergency kit guidance is a good place to start when identifying what should and should not be stocked up on in advance.
Stay Safe, McDonough County!