If you’ve ever watched the news, then you’re undoubtedly familiar with natural disasters. But – perhaps because it’s not as sexy as a disaster itself – you might not know that most of the consequences could’ve been prevented or mitigated. No, we can’t prevent an earthquake, un-burn a wildfire, or stop a hurricane in its tracks, but we can engineer buildings and structures capable of withstanding extreme natural forces when they occur. And it’s entirely within the government’s rights to mandate that habitable buildings do so as well.
But they don’t.
Ask any politician or builder why they don’t act to prevent disaster and the answer will be consistent and instantaneous; “It costs too much.” Building a fire-proof, wind-proof, shake-proof home or office costs more than one that will burn, scatter, or crumble under duress. It’s a solid argument on the surface, but it falters when you consider that the government goes to great lengths to ensure car manufacturers only sell cars that will keep us safe, and then typically mandates state-level recertification every year or two.
Much like the builders and politicians, the automobile industry argued vehemently against every proposed improvement, but the government still pushed through mandatory seat belts, air bags, 3rd brake lights, an interior trunk latch, and safety glass. Despite the industry-predicted doom, consumers have grown to appreciate and rely on every one of the improvements, and any protesters generally stay home when the government takes action against those trying to skirt the law.
It begs the question, why is structural safety a costly add-on, when automobile safety is an investment shared by all? Why keep our cars safe, but our roads, bridges, homes and buildings vulnerable? Do the politicians we elect write the laws keeping us safe know something that we don’t?
It turns out that they probably do, which sounds great until you realize that the stuff they know has nothing to do with keeping us safe, and everything to do with saving themselves. But first, a bit of context.
A 2009 study by Andrew Healy and Neal Malhotra examined US government investments in disaster preparedness and disaster recovery. In the paper, they show that spending on preparedness significantly reduces the cost of recovery, giving a dollar invested towards prevention the net present value of $15. A single dollar increased investment in preparedness per-capita has a societal impact of better than $4 billion. That’s a proven return of over 1,500%, which is better than anything even Bernie Madoff claimed to be making for his clients when many politicians were begging him to take their money.
Improving disaster prevention and disaster preparedness have been major global initiatives for over 50 years. My Google searches for a structural engineer saying it’s all just a ruse came up empty. Seemingly everyone who knows anything about disasters and engineering has been all aboard the preparedness train since the 1970s. You can’t find a respected expert willing to say it’s a bad investment.
Which is why the following is so concerning: From 1988 to 2004 the federal government decreased overall preparedness spending by 60%, and raised disaster recovery spending by 13,636% per-capita. And during this period:
- Disaster-related damages more than tripled
- Disaster recovery funding quintupled, going from just 11% to over 55% of damages per-capita
- The ratio of preparedness-to-recovery spending slipped from $1 preparedness per $3.50 recovery to just $1 per $142.85.
We have a preparedness funding method that returns fifteen times the value we put into it, and over 20 years we gutted it by over 60%. The 40% we ‘saved’ was enough to fund just 1% of the disaster recovery costs – some of which might’ve otherwise been prevented or mitigated by keeping the money in place.
No, politicians aren’t all idiots. They’re actually better at math than many of us. When it comes to disaster spending they’re doing some advanced calculations, but they’re likely considering a new variable: Votes. And they’re not wrong to do so, apparently.
Healy and Malhotra found that spending money on disaster relief is directly linked to an increase in votes on election day for the incumbent. Land $27,000 in recovery funding and they’ll have earned themselves a single new vote. Pull in hundreds of millions in relief and a figurative landslide reelection is probably in the cards. This strong correlation may be due to the fact that most recipients of disaster relief are individuals. If the current administration saves your bacon, are you really going to vote them out of office?
The chart above (with my colorful annotations added) is pulled directly from their study. It shows that when there’s a disaster the incumbent is harshly penalized if there’s a reduction or insufficient funds available for recovery (4%-14% drop in votes), but rewarded with votes if they can make it rain money.
The same cannot be said for the funding of preparedness-related activities, as shown above. It turns out that voters don’t dependably respond positively to any kind of preparedness investment, regardless of whether the funds go to individuals, businesses, or governments. Reasonable adjustments to preparedness funding have no discernible impact on votes for an incumbent; they remain steady at 3%-4% likelihood of loss through most of the spectrum.
A politician who wishes to remain in office has a sobering decision to make. If they want to save lives, they must drastically increase prevention spending, but will be more likely to lose the next election if. If they want to win, they should eliminate disaster preparedness funding, then come charging in on a white horse (carrying bucket-loads of cash) after tragedy strikes.
And what of the politician with a conscience who invests in preparedness and ends up saving his town from disaster? Well, they’ll have the thanks of a grateful constituency… …right up until the next election, when their opponent can point out how all the neighboring politicians were able to land recovery funds and the associated new infrastructure and homes for their communities, while the incumbent did nothing.
It sounds pretty hopeless, but it isn’t. I’ve found that there are simple ways to get politicians (and others) to invest billions in prevention and preparation merely by ensuring that I’m seeing things from where they stand rather than from where I’m most comfortable.