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)


In addition to immediacy and visibility factors mentioned already, there's another: Large public-works projects such as levees -- or levee enhancements -- tend to be fought against by environmentalists or people who whine about "eyesores" and other concerns ... whereas adding cops to the beat is not something they oppose.


Building a flood control structure is a government funded construction project in a local area and is classified as "pork barrel spending". If the prevailing mood is against "pork" it probably won't happen.

There are two types of levees 1) those that have been breached and 2) those that will be breached. If it is difficult to get money to build a levee it is even more difficult to get money to maintain them in good condition.

It would be interesting to compare the flood damage to areas unprotected by levees to the damage in areas that are protected. High value assets are more likely to be behind a levee so if there is a breach damage could be much larger than for an unprotected area. I would expect the damage to be proportional to ($ of assets per acre) x (frequency of damaging floods).

The probability of a levee breach is much larger than people realize and the breach at the worst possible time.



Perhaps this is related to the fact that a business that makes a mistake, but quickly makes amends garners more loyalty than a business that never makes mistakes.

Sudha M

There are tangible/high visibility changes when the schools get new buildings, roofs and computers or more cops patrol the st. But levies made stronger could as well be a pie in the sky, voters won't see immediate benefit from them.


Part of the problem - why we pay for relief and not prevention - is that many people (myself included) distrust their government's claims of the potential benefits of their proposed projects. It doesn't take many Bridges to Nowhere to ruin credibility.

Mike B

Because there's never money to do things right, only fix things that went wrong.


It's a problem of the feedback loop. Crime is much more tangible. Larger disasters are more abstract to most of us, specifically because they're more isolated incidents.

A HUGE number of problems have comparable disconnects between spending now vs. spending later. For example, high education leads to lower crime, but we spend more on punishing crime than making sure everyone has an education. Likewise, drug prevention and treatment is vastly more effective than military intervention in Colombia. Yet we spend $5 billion there instead.

I won't even start on infrastructure spending...

Alex B

Perhaps prevention and pro-activity are challenging enough of platforms to try to convey to voters that a simpler platform such as "change" would be more accessible.


"voters shun politicians who call for more investment in infrastructure"- is this total bunk, or is there a reference?- I would assume the opposite is true


If you live in a flood prone area, you have probably already made rationalizations about your choice. You probably do not want to be reminded you have made a risky decision.

Jeremy G.

As has been said before, voters don't care as much about prevention as they do about heroism after the fact. as they see it, strengthening the levees would be paying a lot of money to have nothing happen. not being hit by a flood is a very immaterial reward if you haven't been through one yet. The comparison between Florida and New Orleans is a good example; Florida regularly gets hit by hurricanes, so the people there are more willing to spend money on preparedness because not being hit as hard by a hurricane is a very tangible reward for them. Meanwhile, New Orleans hadn't had a disaster in some time, so the people there didn't want to spend money to prepare for something that hadn't happened to them yet and, in their minds, wasn't going to. I think that the best solution to this voter aversion to preparedness would be to have well thought out plans in place to enact in the event of a disaster. they wouldn't be as expensive and would allow for the prepared planners to be perceived as the heroes.



Crime is much more of an immediate threat than floods typically are. If floods happened all the time, politicians running on a flood prevention campaign would likely succeed. But running on a campaign to spend money on an event most people don't foresee happening anyway won't lead to electoral success.

It's actually a quite rational decision: people have evaluated their individual risk associated with different events and the likelihood of them occurring and vote accordingly.

M Todd

We live in a country that continues to blame everyone in Washington for its problems. The stories of graft, corruption and mismanagement in local and state LA government were overshadowed by Bush's failure to respond.

I am no Bush fan, but when you consider hurricanes what is the Federal Government's responsibility? Should we spend billions each year standing by for every hurricane warning to rush aid in on a 24/7 basis? People forget that Florida was hit twice in the same year that New Orleans was hit. What was the difference, FL had its act together, New Orleans didn't. New Orleans had 30 years to prepare for Katrina, but instead squandered hundreds of millions on shoring up tourism not levees. I know of one case that New Orleans used 10 million dollars of levee money to build a fountain for a park. That is one example of how the local government dropped the ball.

So who is to blame? New Orleans decided to build a major city below sea level on one of the largest flood plans in the world. It is their responsibility to make sure their levees and citizens are safe not the rest of the country.

If you choose to live on the coast you have to factor in hurricane and flood expense. Why should I pay for it. New Orleans does not pay for my states weather related expenses.



thank you.

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