Preparation versus Relief: Understanding Public Sentiment Towards Natural Disaster Spending (Bechtel and Mannino)

blog post authored by Gianni Galasso, Michael Allison, Christine Hutchinson, and Holly Lawrence

This year, similar to last, the country will be hit by an above-average number of extreme weather events, including several major hurricanes. These natural disasters are known to cause immense economic and environmental damage. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urges communities to act on these forecasts and prepare, the US government has for decades under-invested in disaster preparedness. According to a new study by Michael Bechtel and Massimo Mannino (forthcoming in Political Behavior), from 1985 to 2010 federal authorities allocated about 3% of all disaster-related spending to improving disaster preparedness, while 97% went towards disaster relief. This stark imbalance is extremely costly; existing estimates suggest that one dollar invested in preparedness is worth about $15 in mitigated future damage. The economic fallout caused by Hurricane Katrina, for example, could have been brought down from $100 billion to about $7 billion if the region had invested more aggressively in disaster preparedness instead of disaster relief. With such high costs, what explains this tendency to under-prepare?

Fig. 1 | Satellite imagery of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall August 29, 2005 as a Category 5 Hurricane and took over 1,800 lives. Source: commerce.gov

One explanation for a lack of public support for disaster preparedness is that investment only seems worthwhile to those personally affected by extreme weather events. Plausibly, experiencing a natural disaster firsthand allows individuals to better understand the consequences of exposure to a disaster as well as to recognize a greater potential for future exposure. This experiential learning argument suggests that previously exposed individuals are more willing to invest in preparedness versus relief measures. Bechtel and Mannino’s study surveyed over 2,500 Americans, cross-referencing self-reported disaster exposure with geographic information. To their surprise, disaster exposure failed to predict support for disaster preparedness spending. In fact, individuals with medium and high levels of disaster exposure were just as unwilling to back preparedness investment as respondents with low affectedness.

What explains the absence of a systematic relationship between disaster exposure and policy preferences? Could mere exposure to natural disasters fail to provide respondents with information about the benefits of disaster preparedness spending, and perhaps even reinforce the belief that relief aid is the most effective approach because it is the most prevalent? Bechtel and Mannino explored this question using an experiment in which respondents were given information regarding the severity of disaster damages in the recent past and were asked about how they would split a $100 million budget between preparedness spending and disaster relief. They randomly assigned respondents into three groups. The control group received only the baseline information while the second group received a so called “compensation prime,” a short additional text about the government’s capacity to engage in relief efforts to compensate for damages and losses from a natural disaster. In contrast, the third group received information about the potential for preparedness investment to strongly reduce the damage caused by natural disasters.

Fig. 2 | Change in Disaster Preparedness Spending Relative to Control Condition in Percent. Results are broken down by treatment condition (no prime, compensation prime, damage reduction prime). The dots represent the change in preparedness spending as a percentage of the baseline level of preparedness spending in the control group. The vertical lines indicate 95% cluster-robust confidence intervals.

Figure 2 above displays the treatment effects observed in the compensation and damage reduction primes relative to the control condition. Compared to the baseline preparedness expenditure of about $50 million in the control group, represented by the green dot on the x-axis, respondents in the compensation condition were not willing to systematically invest more resources in disaster preparedness, represented by the red dot and confidence interval. This could mean that most people are already aware of the government’s ability to compensate for natural disasters with relief options, given that the presentation of this information had no effect on their spending preferences. When informed about the effectiveness of disaster preparedness, however, Americans changed their policy views and allocated 10% more funding to preparedness investment compared to the control group. This result, according to the research team, supports the idea that not knowing the economic benefits of preparedness over compensatory policy could help explain why personal disaster exposure and policy preferences are not systematically related.

The steep costs of under-preparedness, while the focus of Bechtel and Mannino’s study, are not unique to natural disasters. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to demonstrate the devastating effect of under-preparedness in the event of a public health crisis. While the pandemic came as a surprise for most people, infectious disease and other experts have been warning for years about an impending outbreak and our inability to handle it. In his popular 2015 TED Talk, former Microsoft CEO and founder Bill Gates noted that the US was seriously underinvesting and ultimately “not ready” for the next epidemic. While Gates’ concerns may not have garnered the public’s attention in 2015, they certainly have now. Over 600,000 deaths later, hindsight towards COVID –19 has initiated a strong push to prepare for pandemics in the future. Along with exposure to the pandemic came a flow of information about how better preparation could have saved countless lives and perhaps ended the COVID-19 outbreak in its infancy. As a result of learning about the effectiveness of preparedness measures, the public has displayed an increased desire for investing in pandemic preparedness in the future, supporting Bechtel and Mannino’s findings which show that when people are informed about the cost-saving measures of preparedness investment, policy preferences adjust accordingly. Educating the public about the efficacy of disaster preparedness may therefore be the most effective method in garnering its support and ultimately reducing disaster-related monetary and human losses in the long run.   

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