What Is the State of U.S. Disaster-Preparedness? A Freakonomics Quorum

In the last few years, magazine covers and newspaper front pages have often been dominated by disaster coverage: wildfires in California, hurricanes in the Gulf and elsewhere, and of course the Sept. 11 attacks and their myriad repercussions. (Whether the incidence of such events is higher or coverage is just noisier is a separate question, which is addressed below.)

So we asked five smart people who spend their time thinking about disasters to answer the following question:

What’s wrong — and what’s right — with American disaster preparedness and response?

You will find their compelling answers below. It was interesting to me that avian flu and SARS didn’t come up, nor any form of bioterrorism. Have these threats subsided, or merely fallen off the radar?

Although there are some surprises among the answers, the attributed causes of most disaster-preparedness shortcomings will not surprise you: bureaucratic inefficiencies, political gamesmanship, and, according to some of the respondents, corporate interests that don’t serve the public very well.

Also, I couldn’t help but feel that some of the respondents generally overstated the levels of risk we face today — but I guess that is their job, and they shouldn’t be expected to do otherwise.

All that said, there is an awful lot to learn from their answers, and I thank all of them for their time and efforts.

Dr. Erwann Michel-Kerjan, managing director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center:

Some continue to argue that disasters have always existed, so there is nothing new here. While not new, the disasters America is now facing have very few precedents in scale and rhythm.

On the financial side, one figure is eye-opening: if you consider the twenty most costly insured catastrophes in the world over the past 36 years (1970 to 2006), all of them occurred after 1987. (In 2006, prices corrected for inflation, so you can compare apples to apples.) Further, among these 20 catastrophes, half of them have occurred since 2001, nine of which were here in the United States. That’s the new era we have entered. The number of presidential disaster declarations in the U.S. has dramatically increased as well, from 162 over the period of 1955 to 1965 to 545 for 1996 to 2005.

America has been hit on almost every front since 2001. Think about it: failure in our national security (9/11); profound distrust in corporate America (Enron, WorldCom, and the subsequent overweighed SOX regulation); and failure in our technology (the Shuttle Columbia disaster, the 2003 blackout, the Minneapolis bridge collapse and poor levee system). And four years after the 9/11 attacks, a violent but long-anticipated hurricane overwhelms a vulnerable coastline, meets a still-unprepared government, and inflicts lasting damage on a population. As such, a superpower fails to meet the most basic needs of its citizens in crisis; further, this disaster is watched on live TV by several billion people worldwide.

What is fundamentally at stake here is the capacity of the U.S. and other exposed countries to rethink what I call “The New Risk Architecture,” with large-scale disasters occurring at an accelerated rhythm.

The following four elements should be central for American disaster preparedness and response to be adequate:

(1) Short versus long term preparation. We all have a tendency to pay attention only to short-run crises. A good preparedness plan is one that takes a long-term view on these issues.

(2) The revolution of globalization. As a result of growing globalization, social and economic activities are becoming increasingly more dependent on one another. While this is not totally new, we have reached a degree of interdependence that no other society has experienced before us: what happens 5,000 miles away today can affect you tomorrow. (Think of a pandemic starting in a poor area of Asia for instance, and spreading all over the world thanks to the fantastic development of the jet; viruses now fly business class, too.)

(3) Local to large-scale disasters. Dealing with large-scale disasters is much more challenging than handling a series of small local accidents. It is a radically different ball game that many do not appreciate; the resources and collaborative efforts that are needed, all at the same time, are not simply additional, but exponential.

(4) Private action can reduce public vulnerability. When it comes to disaster preparedness, the conventional wisdom is often wrong. If one asks people on the street, “Who do you think is in charge of preparing the country against future disasters?” the most cited response will certainly be “local, state, and federal governments.” While these entities certainly play a critical role, today nearly 85 percent of the critical services that allow our country to operate are owned or operated by the private sector. The time has come to look at how private actions affect public vulnerability so we are better prepared for prime time. (See Seeds of Disaster, Roots of Response for more.)

Charles Perrow, professor of sociology at Yale University and author of The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities To Natural, Industrial, And Deliberate Disasters:

The history of disaster preparedness and response is not uniformly bleak. Lyndon Johnson‘s administration, at the height of popular resistance to the Vietnam War, responded remarkably well to the largest Alaska earthquake in modern times, and Florida has handled modest hurricanes adequately over the last 10 years. But it is very doubtful that even the best of administrations could sufficiently handle a direct hit upon Tampa or Miami, or a serious earthquake near San Francisco or Los Angeles. Our organizations are simply not up to preventing or handling large disasters, whether they be from natural, industrial, or terrorist sources. Even if the money available to the Department of Homeland Security was wisely spent, it would make only a little difference in preparedness and response.

What we need to do is reduce our vulnerabilities by downsizing the targets that have catastrophic potential. At one third of its pre-Katrina size, New Orleans could be protected from hurricanes and still serve its vital economic functions as a major port and oil and gas facility. By removing federal subsidies for wind and water insurance, and insisting upon appropriate building standards and land use policies (for example, those as good as Holland’s, which is mostly below sea level), huge cities in vulnerable areas such as Miami, Tampa, or Galveston would slowly shrink to manageable sizes. If we don’t limit their size, hurricanes such as Katrina will do it for us, and at enormous costs to human lives and property.

Also, our nation is strewn with weapons of mass destruction in the form of concentrations of hazardous substances in and near cities. Railroad tank cars that do not meet even the low federal safety standards carry toxic and explosive substances through our cities, and the graffiti on them shows how easy it would be for a terrorist to plant a bomb and escape upwind. A 90-ton tank car of chlorine that could be dislodged by a bomb, a tornado, or a mere railroad accident could kill a few hundred thousand, and such cars can be standing a few blocks from the White House. The government has established that there are 123 total concentrations of hazmats in the U.S., each of which threatens the lives of over one million people. A two-mile stretch of northern New Jersey alone has a concentration of hazmats that could endanger the lives of millions in New York City.

There are only a few isolated instances of reducing these concentrations; we could have many, many more, and the economic costs are small compared to the benefits. Some states, such as New Jersey, have tried to pass legislation to reduce these concentrations or use safer substances, but the federal courts have ruled that lower federal standards preempt higher state standards.

Increasing concentrations of economic and political power in the corporations that run our critical infrastructures such as electric power, water, banking, and the Internet have also made us more vulnerable. For example, following the deregulation of the electric power industry in the 1990s, outages have increased, along with profits and the cost of power, even controlling for increased fuel costs. The 2003 Northeast blackout, the largest of many that year, cost the public $10 to $12 billion, but the responsible utilities lost only a trivial amount. Legislation to make the grid reliable is opposed by the industry. It would take investments of $10 to $12 billion each year for 10 years to substantially improve the grid — which sounds like a lot of money, until you realize that each year the cost of all the outages combined is usually over $100 billion per year.

In my recent book, The Next Catastrophe, I consider other corporate concentrations in transportation, chemicals, agriculture, computer operating systems, and so on. All of them are targets that have catastrophic potential. That potential could be reduced through regulation, which in turn requires an aroused public. But almost no one is calling for actions to reduce vulnerability. Instead of a Department of Homeland Security, what we should have is a Department of Vulnerability Reduction, which would draw upon the national academies and professional groups to assess our vulnerabilities to natural, industrial, and terrorists disasters, and make highly publicized recommendations that Congress and state officials would find hard to ignore. This tactic has worked reasonably well in the contentious area of military base closures. As it is now, the DHS is a vast spoils system, grossly inefficient and even corrupt.

Amanda Ripley, homeland security writer for Time magazine and author of the forthcoming book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why:

America has some of the best emergency planners and responders in the world. We know which disasters are going to strike where, and, in the case of hurricanes, we even get enough warning to name them. The problem is not about the technology, the forecasting, or even money, in most places. It’s about ideology and risk perception. It’s about people, in other words.

Your fate in a disaster in America depends to a large degree on where you live. We are very enamored of states in this country, and so in any emergency, everything comes down to the state and local officials. The feds do almost nothing, and this is by design. Despite how satisfying it is to blame FEMA for everything that goes wrong, and despite the fact that FEMA could be much, much better, it is not really meant to do much more than process checks and paperwork.

This arrangement is okay if you live in a place like California or Florida, which have excellent emergency planners and responders, and if the disaster is manageable. (Then again, one reason California and Florida are so good at responding to most disasters is that they do it all the damn time. So actually, it would be even better to be in Delaware or Vermont, and avoid the disaster to begin with.) But if the skies open up in, say, New Orleans, Dallas or Oklahoma City, all places with less-than-impressive emergency plans, then you could be in serious trouble. Even in California, when the big one hits, it will be at least three to seven days before any first responders make it to your house.

Meanwhile, Americans increasingly insist on living in dense, vertical cities near water. About 91 percent of Americans now live in places at a moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high-wind damage, or terrorism, according to an estimate calculated for Time last year by the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. So disasters are getting more frequent and more destructive. The question is, when will the disincentives for living in high-risk places finally overwhelm the incentives? And can the process be forced?

Lee Clarke, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers and author of Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination:

The most broken thing about disaster preparedness and response is, to use a shorthand phrase, the Command and Control model. This says that effective social organization entails strong leadership (because otherwise people are lost), tight social control (because otherwise people will act like animals), centralization of decision (because otherwise chaos ensues), and centralization of resources (because otherwise inefficiencies run rampant). The result of all that is: bring in guns when in doubt (e.g., “shoot to kill” orders in New Orleans), keep information (especially bad or embarrassing news) close to the vest, and keep non-officials away from a disaster scene.

Meanwhile, at every disaster scene, at least those in the U.S., local people self-organize for rescue and response (the Coast Guard and L.A. Wildlife and Fisheries were smashing) and rarely panic. Indeed, it is the wealthy who are most likely to panic, and their panic is more important than the panic of regular people. Concerns about looting take precedence over lives and well-being. Economic efficiency is a trivial concern in such circumstances.

Psychological belief in and organizational commitment to Command and Control leads us away from investing resources at the very local level, and this is a mistake. In California, people are already looking to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a hero and formal organizations as saviors. The governor has indeed done a good job, and the organizations have worked well together. That’s important. But I predict that a close investigation would reveal that neither saved many lives.

The elephant in the room, though, when it comes to the California fires, or Katrina, or all the great catastrophes to come, is that people make themselves targets for hazards. They live in dangerous places (Malibu, New Orleans, West Palm Beach, central New Jersey), they fly in big airplanes (Airbus A380), they work in tall buildings, and so on. We concentrate ourselves, and the mere fact of concentration makes for greater calamity when the hazard, whatever it is, strikes. That we concentrate ourselves in places that are naturally dangerous (the canyons are beautiful but burn quickly) makes it worse. Ultimately, our disrespect and disregard for the environment (we assume we can tame nature) is something that, if unabated, will lead to more suffering.

Howard Kunreuther, professor of Decision Sciences & Public Policy at Wharton and co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center:

The California wildfires highlight an interdependent risk. Even if you take protective action, you may be endangered by others who fail to do so. Interdependency, which is common to many other risks, suggests the need for public and private sector involvement to reduce the likelihood that a disaster of this magnitude will occur in the future. Let me illustrate the concept of interdependency with a simple example:

Suppose the Holzes, a family residing in an area outside of San Diego designated as a red or high hazard zone, want to make their house more fire retardant. The Holzes are considering replacing their wood shake roof with a tile roof to reduce the chances that a fire will damage or destroy their home. Their next-door neighbors, the Wind family, who also have a shake roof, do not follow suit. They feel their roof is attractive, and believe that another fire will not occur again while they are living in their home.

In a dry desert climate, a shake roof is like a match stick that could be ignited by a spark and cause the Winds’ house to burn and likely spread to the Holzes’ home, even if it has a tile roof. When the Holzes realize that all their neighbors still have shake roofs, they may be reluctant to spend the money replacing theirs with a tile roof, because they know it may not do much good. If all their neighbors had installed tile roofs, they would have followed suit. In such an interdependent world, where each homeowner makes decisions on his own, it is very likely that no one will take protective action even though everyone would be better off if they had all invested in fire retardant measures. Voluntarily, coordination is not easy to achieve in these situations.

A roof is vulnerable because embers fly through the air and land on shingles, eaves, and vents. For this reason, well-enforced building codes may be needed to address the problem. All homes in tinderbox zones should be designed so that the likelihood of fires spreading to other homes is reduced. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends using tile, terra cotta, metal, and slate for all roofing materials. Eaves that extend beyond exterior walls should also be closed and insulated with fire-resistant materials.

There could be financial incentives to reward property owners for taking these actions. Insurers could be allowed to lower their premiums to reflect the reduced chances of future fires to these homes. For insurers to want to provide this discount, they would have to be assured that all the homes in the area were designed according to code. Otherwise, a well-designed home could be damaged from a fire that started in a house with a shake roof. For insurers to be receptive to lowering premiums, they would also have to be able to charge rates reflecting risk. Today, regulators often restrict insurance rates so they are artificially low. In these situations, insurers do not have a financial incentive to provide coverage to the homeowner, let alone provide reductions in premiums for those who take preventive actions.

Coming back to the example with which I began, the Holzes, the Winds and all their neighbors need to be told that they are residing in a red zone and should make their house more fire retardant for that reason. If a state building code is passed that requires all new homes to use tile, terra cotta, metal or slate roofing materials, current homeowners should also be encouraged to follow the new regulations. If this information campaign is ineffective, then the state may want to require both new and existing homes to install these types of roofs, to reduce the likelihood that they will suffer damage from a future wildfire because of the interdependent risk.

Erwann Michel-Kerjan

Thank you all for for your comments. On the financial side, I'm not sure "This is an entirely useless statistic… how about comparing the costs as a percentage of GDP". The recent disasters that occurred in the US are the source of a true insurance crisis here. My point was not so much on the level of insured losses but on the accelerating rythm. What do you think?


thanks for the GREAT post! Very useful...


Simply cant be ready for each and every eventuality!


Well, looks like I'll be spending the holidays under the bed.

Everyone can help themselves, though. I keep a decent supply of canned food and bottled water on hand. I don't know if I will ever need it, but this much is certain: should you ever have to shelter in place for a week, due to the weather or breakdown of order or whatever, no one is going to come along to help you. So you might as well be prepared.


The REAL problem is not a lack of solutions, but a lack of getting all the right people in the same room...and then IMPLEMENTING these policies.

We can easily figure out the (sometimed Draconian) ways to handle virtually every conceiveable disaster--from natural to manmade. But we do not have the guts to truly "go to war."

I think that explains why we have such a porous border while we at the same time urge citizens to be vigilant against terrorism: VERY SIMPLY WE HAVE NEVER WENT TO WAR.

Yes, we have troops in Iraq--"over there." But back in WWII, not only were our soldiers at war, WE were at war. It mean gas rationing, it meant repurposing industry, etc.

But we do not see that today. Not only when it comes to literal war (Iraq), but in the "war" to handle disasters. We don't have the guts to tell people who build on the beach, "Hey, if you get washed away, don't come running to us--you're the one who tempted God."

We don't have the guts to say, "New Orleans will NOT be rebuilt--because it could happen again...and it's too expensive to keep trying to keep out the elements."

I long for a President that calls all the experts together and says, "List all the disasters you can think that could happen. Identify how we can prevent them, prepare for them, and/or respond to them effectively. I will then do my best to make it national policy that these recommendations be enforced."

Of course, being ready to respond to a hurricane can easily be leveraged to respond to an earthquake, floods, etc. I mean, everyone's going to need ice, water, food, and shelter.

One additional thing: I would create a national "certification" for states, counties, cities, towns, hospitals, fire departments, police departments, and so on, that had stringent standards that had to be met each year. Certification would perhaps entail certain benefits than otherwisw would be received. A state could be certified (and eligible for certain funds, perhaps) only if all their counties, cities, fire department, etc. met certifcation standards.

It's time to truly go to war and become a well-oiled machine in responding to disaster.



I have two comments. First, with regards to the "top 20 most costly disasters" thing. While the numbers were scary, there are all sorts of things that impact the "growth" in the past 50 years. First, it stands to reason that there will be more monetary loss in a disaster in the wealthiest nation in the world, simply because there is more money. Add to that the general trend towards more people using insurance and, more importantly, submitting claims to replace their costly, not not necessary, stuff, like big screen televisions, jewelery, expensive cars, etc. In the US, we've traded monetary cost for death rate.

Second, there is this trend in America towards complete abdication of responsibility. I built my wood house with wood roof in an irrigated desert, but when my house burns down, someone else should pay to rebuild. I live along the beach on a coast that is hit every year by hurricanes, but I don't have to bear the cost of rebuilding when my house blows down. I borrowed more money than I could really afford through an interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage on the belief that housing prices always go up, and now that I can't afford to pay, someone should bail me out so I can keep the house that I didn't pay for. This entire country is filled with Damsels in Distress, awaiting first the Wicked Witch and then their Knight in Shining Armor.



"I long for a President that calls all the experts together and says, List all the disasters you can think that could happen. Identify how we can prevent them, prepare for them, and/or respond to them effectively.'"

Why is this the President' job? Wouldn't it make a lot more sense for governors and county supervisors and mayors to do it?

In a country the size of the U.S., a list of ALL possible disasters will be impossibly long. The federal government doesn't have the resources to address more than a tiny fraction of them. And if the President tries to prioritize the list, he'll be immediately attacked for favoritism, cronyism, racism, you name it -- all because he doesn't put the critic's home town at the top of the list.

If this sort of analysis is done at the state and local level, the resulting list will be far more manageable, and far less vulnerable to that sort of political derailment.



I'm glad to see the message, from your guests and my fellow commentators above, about taking personal responsibility and willingness to make sacrifices and/or lifestyle changes. Aaron expecially hits the nail on the head. I can't imagine expecting someone else to take care of me in an emergency--I hope I'm taking action to help others. Every talks about "the country" taking care of us--but we ARE the country.


I woke up around 1998 and realized that we had no viable Civil Defense program any longer and everyone I spoke with was either terrified of Y2K or they assumed "the government" would take care of things.
I was actually more concerned about terroist threats during the Y2K rollover than any actual Y2K problems.

After spending an incredible amount of time researching, I decided what I needed to do to prepare my family against a variety of "emergencies" in a variety of escalating scenarios.

You can't prepare against everything, you will go insane, but if you begin with making sure that -no matter what- you have the basics: Water, Heat, Food, Clothing, you can then plan for the other stuff.

I wish more people would try to take responsibility for taking care of themselves and others IN CASE of emergency rather than depending entirely on others to bail them out.

I remember trying to talk about this with people and they thought I was nuts, I live in the city. They called me a "survivalist"!
Yeah, I admit it. I am "pro-survival".
I would like to take care of my family. And if I can, I will take care of your's too.



Having just gone through a disaster (SoCal fires) and participating in the response in multiple capacities, I found this article very interesting. I cannot explain specifically how I was involved, but live and responded in Orange County.

The best emergency response is done before the emergency, in the form of preparedness. This I am sure is obvious to all of you. The problem is getting all parties involved in preparing. This includes all levels of government and all government agencies, as well as the general public and all companies. Every person and group of people (households, families, offices, etc) should have a disaster plan. All of these parties are slow to prepare because they, like teenage drivers, don't think a disaster will happen to them. And preparing is time consuming and costly.

People need to realize that local, state, and federal governments will respond to a disaster, but more importantly that those governments can only do so much, and that response will go a lot further if each individual is prepared him/herself. Far too many people rely solely on charitable organizations and/or government agencies to take care of them.

The government agencies need to be better prepared themselves as well. This means they need to educated all of their employees on the responsibilities of that agency in the event of a disaster, and train their employees on what they will need to when the time comes. They also need to get together with other other agencies and learn what those agencies can do, etc, etc so everyone knows what each agency can and cannot do, and then they as a group of gov't agencies need to come up with multiple plans for multiple disasters, and then explain those plans to their employees in detail and train each new employee in the disaster plans. There is far too much tossing-up-of-hands and shrugging-shoulders. Run drills, educate, prepare, so when the time comes everyone will come together as a whole.

As far as the recent fires, I can say that Orange County as a group of gov't and charitable agencies, was quite prepared. Most of the cities have active emergency managers, and they all come together regularly to discuss potential problems and how to prepare and respond. One of the biggest possible disasters facing OC is a meltdown of the nearby nuclear power plant. There are huge elaborate drills every year centering around this possibility. The county recently had a drill to prepare for a situation where mass inoculations would have to be administered. There were a few spots in the county set up and they tried to give out as many flu shots as possible to as many people as possible. I know a few individual cities go through full scale drills each year and they also train their employees (no matter their normal function) in response and sheltering. All of these things allowed the County to come together without any major hiccups and respond in a timely manner. As always, there were some issues, but all in all I believe the preparing helped tremendously. I cannot speak regarding the surrounding counties and their response, but from what I saw on the news, etc, they too were fairly prepared. I also believe the State and Federal Gov'ts did a good job, especially in comparison to the resopnse to Katrina. So, I guess what I want to say is that the response to these fires is a great example of the differnce preparing can make.


David G

"On the financial side, one figure is eye-opening: if you consider the twenty most costly insured catastrophes in the world over the past 36 years (1970 to 2006), all of them occurred after 1987. (In 2006, prices corrected for inflation, so you can compare apples to apples.) Further, among these 20 catastrophes, half of them have occurred since 2001, nine of which were here in the United States. That's the new era we have entered. The number of presidential disaster declarations in the U.S. has dramatically increased as well, from 162 over the period of 1955 to 1965 to 545 for 1996 to 2005."

This is an entirely useless statistic... how about comparing the costs as a percentage of GDP. If the country's economy is larger than it was in 1955, a child could tell you that an average disaster will have a larger absolute impact.

Mark D.

Where's the talk about money in all this disaster discussion? The financial incentives to develop in dangerous spots are large and unabated.

One example: The floodplain north of downtown Sacramento (second only to New Orleans in flood risk) was so unsuited for development that the federal grant to expand regional sewer plant's capacity included a $6M penalty if that expansion encouraged development in that northern floodplain (North Natomas).

The land speculators were not bothered. They went all the way to then-vice president G.H.W. Bush and arranged for the $6M penalty to be payable in installments, rather than the prohibitive up-front fee. As an added bonus, they got a federal grant for $43 million in levee improvements.

But wait, there's more!

What was North Natomas' agriculture land (worth a few thousand dollars an acre) is now residential / commercial / industrial land worth hundreds of thousands an acre.

This kind of land speculation is the foundation of several large fortunes here. And land speculators don't even have to pay income tax on their profits if they 1031 exchange out of the development.

Except for the chump change in development fees, this is also a missed revenue opportunity for the locals. In Germany, developers have to sell the agriculture land to the local government at the ag land price, then re-purchase it at the upzoned price.

...And German schools don't have to sell candy and wrapping paper so their students will have after-school sports, or arts programs, like they do in Sacramento.

To give you an idea of the scope of this difference between Sacramento privatizing all this profit, and the Germans, who actually believe in a rich public realm: The arts budget for the City of Berlin exceeds the U.S.' National Endowment for the Arts.

Of course this arrangement is a gigantic subsidy for developers to use the least suitable land for their projects because the profit can be so large. It also is a subsidy completely off the books. Neither taxes nor spending appears to the public, but it is a gigantic subsidy nonetheless.

A similar thing happened with New Orleans' levees. Limited funds could have built a stadium or better flood protection. Guess which got built? Guess which made more money for the developers?

If you ignore the money here, you'll miss the entire point... And don't forget Naomi Klein's work: "Disaster Capitalism." Setting up these disasters is sets up a future windfall.

Shameful, really.



You mention that natural disaster costs have been rising faster than inflation. Are they growing faster than GDP? Are some kinds of disaster having their costs grow at different rates than others?

The interdependence of our society is increasing, and I'm wondering how much you can tease out of the data from these disasters to determine things about how we're changing.


why is the real state agent assumed to be a woman?

is there a website for discussion about the book?


Alex Martelli

"it stands to reason that there will be more monetary loss in a disaster in the wealthiest nation in the world, simply because there is more money" -- so by this reasoning, the costliest disasters should be in Luxembourg, Norway, Qatar, Iceland, Switzerland, Denmark, and Ireland, according to the list you can find at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28nominal%29_per_capita> and which was compiled by the IMF; Sweden, Netherlands and Finland should also be pretty close to the US (their GDP per capita is below the US, but within 10% of it).

Sure, each of these rich states, individually, is smaller than the US ("density" of money is higher, but total is smaller); but if you want to consider a larger area, well then, the EU has a larger overall GDP than the US ("total" of money is higher, though density is a bit smaller) -- so IF this reasoning applied, you would expect a larger number of big costly disasters in the EU than in the US; this does not appear to be the case. So, I suspect this factor doesn't apply (or at least doesn't apply to such an important extent as your formulation would suggest).


Alex Martelli

Funny to see that no interviewed expert, and no commenter either, mention the cognitive problem highlighted (e.g.) in Taleb's "Black Swans": we, collectively, are always biased to under-invest in disaster _prevention_, because we just can't perceive disasters that *just didn't happen* thanks to preventive measures -- thus the advantages of successful prevention can never be as salient and cognitively/narratively intense to us as the disadvantages and costs that we DO actually incur (and sharply perceive).

If we're aware of this inevitable bias, we could and maybe should react by over-investing in preventive measures compared to the perceived benefits, but that will always be hard to sustain as the costs continue to be very perceptible and the advantages are most often invisible.


Self preparation: (1) Own a gun and know how to use it, (2) Have a pile of cash that is easily accessed, (3) Have a place to retreat to if the need arises, (4) Keep gas tanks in cars more than half full, and (5) Have a bit of food, water, and meds stockpiled.

Alternative suggestion: Move to New Zealand. And then follow steps 1 to 5.


I am a little bit surprised that non of those people talked about the fact that people tend to be irrationnal when assessing risks, and that they may be prepared to the wrong thing (the "security thater", as Bruce Schneier puts it).

Simple example: I work in one of the buildings of the Rockefeller Center in New York. In my first day of work, I was given a bag containing a life blanket, a torch, a poncho and some water.
How useful is that ?

I work in the lower floors, so if say a fire breaks, it will most likely be above me, so I can easily exit the building. In which case I'll probably wait in the nearest Starbucks instead of outside in the cold.

If something really dramatic happens, either I just die, or if I can at least attempt to exit the building, I'll probably leave my little life bag behind.

The thing is, the idea is not just useless, it is also counter-productive. It may silence the people who would be inclined to say things like "9/11 happened but nothing has changed" but it doesn't make us any more secure while making us believe that we are.



I'm old enough to remember bomb shelters being built by our neighbors in response to the Cuban missle crisis. And we live in San Diego, where clearly a Santa Ana wildfire is a more likely disaster. During the 50's and 60's we had air raid sirens going off regularly (every friday at noon) in case we were gonna be nuked. In school we were taught how to hide under our desks, and not to look at the sky when the "big one" came.
We've never had the "big one", but we do have fires every year. It makes the most sense to prepare for the natural events (as opposed to the political), which we know will happen eventually. Our family put in place a plan after the fires of 2003, and we were able to grab everything important and leave our home in 30 minutes. Our local governments were also much better prepared than in 2003.
As for stockpiling Cipro, duct tape and plastic sheeting for a bioteorrist attack, we've passed on that as a family.Should that happen, we'll just do our best to survive.



I am a Disaster Recovery / Resilience professional and am really glad to see big picture perspectives on the topic of Risk. People most associate Risk Management with their protfolios, but I suggest people look at their lives and the decisions they make; i.e. where to live, what car to buy... from a risk based perspective. When you start looking at life that way, you rarely find yourself sayg "Wow, I never saw that coming!" I particularly agree with Dr. Erwann Michel-Kerjan. Excellent Article.