Why Do Voters Reward Poor Disaster Preparedness?

Politicians reap higher electoral benefits from doling out disaster relief money than they do from spending money beforehand on disaster prevention. According to a new paper by Andrew Healy, an economist at Loyola Marymount University, that creates an incentive for governments to underprepare for natural disasters.

So if voters reward poor preparedness, Healy writes, the American voter “bears some responsibility” for the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and other disasters that were made worse by poor prevention efforts.

Healy finds that, on average, every $1 spent on disaster mitigation prevents roughly $8 of disaster damage over the following five years. But in most cases, voters shun politicians who call for more investment in infrastructure and other disaster preparedness efforts when the skies are clear.

Politicians routinely run on pledges to prevent crime by putting more cops on the street. Why don’t more candidates run on preventing future floods by putting more levees on the river?

(Hat tip: Overcoming Bias)


I think there are two reasons for this:

1) Cultural reason: US culture is short-term-oriented and individualistic (like most Western cultures). The short-term savings of not taking a preventive action are preferred because they are materialized NOW as opposed to the FUTURE possibility of preventing a disaster that may not even happen. Also the cost of taking a preventive measure may seem too high to the average tax-payer/voter who is also an individualist - why pay for something that will not benefit ONLY that individual voter?

2) People vote irrationally (not only in US). They tend to reward politicians who have the characteristics of "heroes" or "saviors" as several people already wrote before. If there are no disasters or critical situations, the politicians would seem not only boring but also useless. So politicians themselves benefit from disasters and those who are quicker to react in a crisis situation usually get the most reward. Not only that but if they can, politicians deliberately create fictitious crises in order to be able to appear as heroes and strong leaders. Here is an example:




Actually, FEMA was on quite the preventionist kick during the Clinton Administration under the leadership of James Lee Witt.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration, as part of some sweeping reforms from the previous 8 years, changed that. They replaced Witt with Joe Allbaugh and refocused FEMA on issues that required less of the American tax dollar.

Further, once 9/11 changed everything, FEMA (as well as a number of other federal agencies) became consumed with the threat of terrorism as opposed to natural disaster. Thus, all preparedness plans and projects were thrown out the window leaving us in the condition we found ourselves in for Katrina.

I haven't heard whether Katrina adequately refocused the political process on disaster preparedness, but my guess is no.

With the economy and Iraq, I doubt that the issue gets raised again until we reach a state of comfort that we had in the late 80s and early 90s.


Ken D.

I am generally a fan of this country's multiple-level governmental system, with state and local governments having self-government authority that in many countries would flow directly from the national capital. There is a reason why totalitarian societies are invariably highly centralized. However, the subject of flood control, and particularly Katrina, may expose a key weakness in that structure. I have wondered since Katrina if a key reason why New Orleans went under while Amsterdam has stayed high and dry is that New Orleans had state, federal and city governments to pass the buck among themselves. I suspect that if greater New Orleans had been an independent city-nation, the levees and floodwalls would have been done right.


What the author asserts is true. The public sector under prepares. The costs saved by preperation, though, are greatly under-stated. He seems to focus on costs to prevent actual disasters. That is, shoring up New Orleons is cheaper than Katrina. The problem, though, is that prevention has tp happen anywhere there is potential for disaster. This makes the cost of prevention much higher than the author claims.


I am a tax auditor. Basically there are two types of things I can find in my audits. Real changes and timing changes. As an example, a real change would result from assessing the tax on unreported income. A timing change, in contrast, would be reporting the income in the wrong year. The company would "owe" taxes say in 2005 but get a credit for having paid them, incorrectly, in 2006. In some cases, with tax rates changing, companies have actually ended up paying less tax!

As you can imagine, companies fight like hell when one finds the first type of adjustment and hardly care when one finds the second. Meanwhile, from a statistics point of view, (where senior management bonuses are calculated and where politicians score political points) dollar for dollar, either adjustment is considered the same. Any reversal is processed separately. Meanwhile any negative fallout lands on the auditor who finds the first type of adjustment.

Any wonder why I get nothing but static when I make recommendations to my peers about how to find real adjustments.

Government is full of such nonsense. Unlike the people of my generation, the younger generation either sees through it and leaves or makes a rapid accommodation to it. I suppose this is due to the better employment opportunities available since the mid 1990's.


morris pearl

To reinforce number nine, It is well known from customer satisfaction studies in many industries that the most satisfied customer is someone who had a major problem that was solved. That customer is materially happier than the customer who never had a major problem with the service. It is sad but true that preventing problems is less valued than waiting for the problem to happen and then dealing with it.


Possibly people like to vote for candidates that promise what the people themselves do.

After Hurricane katrina how many of the readers donated some money for relief work? And how many would be donate to a program that works on hurricane related disaster prevention?

Marco Parigi

This effect is particularly apparent with bushfires. Very little money is spent on building firebreaks, controlled burnoffs (risk reduction) etc. A huge amount of money is comparably spent on fire-fighting. I think it is shameful.

However on the other side of the coin, the building/strengthening of levees etc. is best done *At the weakest points* This will only be apparent after the disaster strikes. Therefore, I think it reasonable that major disaster mitigation happen after the disaster (for the next one) with far better information about what to prioritise.


I work in an agency charged with "flood risk management" (what we used to call "flood control" then "flood damage reduction") and what I've seen in the budget processes these days is a push to identify projects with the highest benefit/cost ratios, and then identify particular projects in terms like lives threatened, expected property damage, warning times, flood depth, velocity. The administration looking for high B/C ratios, generally, and our Congressional representation adds projects to the budget that the Administration left off.

Net effect of this is each State in the Union is competing with other states for precious budget dollars, and what the Administration doesn't provide in their rankings, we rely on Congressional support to fill in the gaps as best they can. One man's pork is another's "constituent services."


No, the voters are not responsible for the handling of Katrina. The idiots in charge of FEMA who chased out competent administrators based on an ideology that government can't work is to blame. FEMA was an agile, well run agency from its inception and if you competent administrators, guess what? Government agencies work well. If you put idiots at the helm, guess what? Mismanagement.

This has nothing to do with incentives. After all, voters have routinely voted against their interests when faced with fear propaganda. If voters were voting based on incentives, we'd no longer have such a wealth disparity between the richest of Americans and the poorest of Americans. We would instead have long ago adopted Huey P Long's "Share the Wealth" program.

JG Hitzert

The voters are responsible for what has been a systemic failure of government across the board these past eight years.

Problem though with the assertion here is that this kind of calculous has more than diminishing returns. At some point lack of preparedness and the benefit from it stack up to a point where the electorate catches on finally. At that point the repercussions are quite harsh. The 2004 elections and I believe the 2008 will bear this out.

Now you might say that these failures of preparedness do not happen in a vacuum and are not mutually exclusive of other failures in governance.


The remedy isn't difficult. Simply have the plans prepared for implementation when disaster strikes and make it part of the relief.


I'd connect it to the human love of and fascination with stories. The key difference between disaster relief and disaster preparation is that only in the former does the devastation of a natural disaster actually occur - therefore, it is more dramatic and thus more visible to voters, as are the actions taken with regard to it.

Sci Ed

This makes sense. Preventive measures are often seen as unnecessary spending. Preventive measures are analogous in many ways to the act of saving, which we know most Americans don't believe in. At the same time, remedial measures are seen as fulfilling a true need.

Also, when a road needs to be repaved, traffic is disrupted during the paving, and people complain. Most infrastructure upgrades result in disruptions during the upgrade. Therefore during the planning and actual construction, people complain and are not usually thankful.

Various permit requirements also prolong any action, and provide the public with excuses to oppose the upgrades.

Science Editor


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George Tenet Fangirl

When something bad fails to happen, most people fail to notice.


How much money has been spent on preventing terrorism compared to that preventing forest fires, floods, or the automobile accidents which result from poor road condition?

#13, you point out the problem exactly. A documentary on PBS attracts the attention of the people who are already on board. Meanwhile 100x the audience is watching the local news where 5 minutes are spent talking about Osama Bid Laden followed by 10 on the latest fashion trend.

Until the issues which matter are covered by mass media in proportion to their importance, people will continue to ignore them. Our attention spans have limits, and they are focused on the sensational.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but perhaps some more sensationalization of these sorts of issues would actually create some political value in addressing them.

Chris S.

This is simply a recurring facet of human nature: we love heroics (they tap into our need for stories per Shaye #14). So much so, that we will line up to witness and praise people who save the day (as abby #9 noted).

Firefighting is heroic and exciting because if it is done properly, there is a dramatic resolution.

Fire prevention is tedious and boring because if it is done properly, nothing happens.

As the late, great Peter Drucker noted: a well run organization is boring because disruptive problems have been planned for; excitement, heroics, and drama characterize poorly managed organizations.

And considering that the "American voter" is responsible (through ratings which drive ad revenue) for the 5 minutes of Osama-Bin-Laden type news followed by fourteen hours of the Britney and Paris show, our only hope for decent management in our government is for people far smarter and effective than the average American voter to be responsible for "fire prevention".

Unfortunately, such people are appointed by the politicians that are chosen through the wisdom of those same American voters. It's a wonder that anything works as well as it does....



I don't think this is the answer you're looking for, but I'd like to believe the reason is that putting more levees on rivers doesn't prevent floods - it just defers them, or pushes them downstream, and then makes them worse when they do occur.

Sensible river community management would be helping people make better choices about where to situate their permanent assets (like homes), rather than subsidizing homes and businesses built on flood plains.


I don't think it's just in the area of disaster. I'm a software developer, and I regularly see people get rewarded - even promoted! - for coming in and "saving the day" when something goes horribly wrong with the software (e.g., it keeps crashing). But what rewards are given to those of us who just develop it the right way in the first place so that these problems don't ever occur? My guess is that this trend is not just limited to IT!


The assumptions of this article are far fetched, starting with:

"the American voter “bears some responsibility” for the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and other disasters that were made worse by poor prevention efforts."

The defective levees were built and poorly maintained by the Corps of Engineers, and the defective flood pumps designed to drain the flood waters were poorly maintained by the City of New Orleans.

I worked in NOLA for 4 months as a consultant, and every week there was an airing on PBS about the precarious conditions that would occur if a direct hurricane hit occurred. Any person that stayed behind after they were warned for 3 days to evacuate took on a serious risk.

Why would the author blame the "American Voter"?