Why America Doesn’t Prevent Natural Disasters

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Tate Linden
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.

Unexpected Surprise

Cougar paper's "Share" promotional book

We’ve just learned that some of our client work featured in the Cougar paper company promotional book, Share on Cougar®.

The identity kit for Leadership Ascent will be on display at HOW Design Live this year in Cougar’s Live Blueline Gallery, in booth 511. If you’re lucky enough to attend this year, please stop by and say hello for us!

Lindsay Benson Garrett showing off Stokefire's work featured in Cougar's latest promotional book.

About the identity kit

A lifelong mountaineer, the founder (a recent escapee from the world of Fortune 500® client-side leadership training) looked to blend his thus far distinct passions for corporate leadership and adventuring into a single entity that would seamlessly bring lessons learned on the mountain to bear on the boardrooms of his clients. His mindset was fundamentally shifted on his climb up Mt. Rainier, leading to the tagline we developed for him: “Find yourself on the way.”

Leadership Ascent identity kit

Where we start considering paper

The choice of paper played a critical role in contributing to the feeling of authenticity in the final design, but we began considering the weight and texture of the paper from the moment we conceived of the historical approach to the kit. As we started to develop the vintage mountaineering inspired stationery, we simultaneously started exploring cost effective paper options to make it come to life.

We utilized century-old, lightly edited public domain maps of the founder’s favorite mountain as the consistent visual, and this required a lot of ink to sit on top of the paper. We went with Cougar’s 70lb text for the smooth grain and solid weight, choosing an uncoated stock to maintain the outdoorsy, weathered feel. Cougar natural was a cost effective stock that had a variety of weights available that enabled us to increase the tactile experience of the all-important business card while maintaining the same look as the rest of the kit.

Our favorite moment during the project

At the initial presentation of the tagline in combination with the ID kit, his business partner (and wife) suggested that our creative director “must be sleeping with him, because that’d be the only we could possibly know him so well.”

Leadership Ascent identity kit

The piece on display at the HOW Conference:

Leadership Ascent on display at the Domtar gallery

TEDx Herndon Recap

Tate Linden speaking at TEDx Herndon. Photo by Lindsay Benson Garrett, 2015.

On March 14th (Pi Day), people gathered in the Industrial Strength Theater in Herndon, VA to have their minds stuffed with new ideas and stretched by different perspectives. The theater had an intimate black box style, allowing for interaction with the invite-only audience. 

Sixteen speakers and performers covered a wide swath of topics ranging from green architecture futures to modern dance duets to the value of unhappiness. The talk about how to use unhappiness as an incredible tool was delivered by none other than our President & Chief Strategic Consultant, Tate Linden.

You may ask how one goes about preparing for a TEDx talk. In working alongside Tate every day I witnessed first hand how it goes down. 

First – lots of cursing. Then plenty of excitement. Then the realization that “damn, this is harder than it looks, let’s edit this speech for the millionth time.”

It was a challenge to whittle down the concept from one hefty theory and model that Stokefire has used to help global organizations achieve remarkable success into a 15 minute insightful presentation highlighting the most critical step in the recipe. (And let’s be clear, I wasn’t even doing the work – Tate was.) But the distillation was not even the hardest piece – that part showed up when Tate grabbed the bull by the horns and confronted his largest source of unhappiness in over 20 years. 

It was intense, it was surprising, and when he walked off the stage the audience gave a standing ovation with tear streaked faces. 

Way to make us proud, Tate. 

The video will be out in a few weeks. We can’t wait to share it with you!

About TEDx

TED is a nonprofit group that focuses on spreading worthwhile ideas throughout the world in a series of events and conferences. Known as TED Talks, these events typically feature the leading thinkers and doers of the world that speak on a matter of different subjects for 18 minutes at a time. Previous global speakers include Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Jane Goodall, among others. TEDx events are community planned and coordinated independently in the style of the global TED event.

The Power of Unhappiness at TEDx


Our nation’s founding fathers may have been inspired by unhappiness – they wrote it into Declaration of Independence. Seriously. Don’t remember it? Right after “Life, Liberty”… we have “and the PURSUIT of happiness.” See what they did there? We get life and liberty from our first breath, but if we want to be happy? We gotta buy some sneakers, a nice track suit, and then try to chase down happiness. 

Don’t like exercise? Prepare to be disappointed. And even if you do like it, you’re still screwed, because the moment you stop pursuing and start having… you’ll find that our founders didn’t tell us we could actually keep happiness, or how to know it when we see it. 

Traditional wisdom says that the value of unhappiness lies in making the good times feel that much better. We’re not advocating that you practice masochism on Tuesdays so that your Wednesdays feel better, but being unhappy does provide with us with super powers that disappear once happiness creeps in. 

Unhappiness and happiness aren’t as hard to pin down as we think they are – there are specific conditions that lead to one or the other and once you know what to look for you’ll know what to change.

Tate Linden, Stokefire’s President and Chief Strategic Consultant, has been invited to present at the inaugural TEDx Herndon event this Saturday, March 14th (Pi Day). He’ll be sharing the secret sauce on to how unhappiness can be used as a tool to find happiness easier and more often. And we promise he won’t be chopping anyone’s toes off to make the next speaker sound better.

TEDx Herndon

Super Bowl Reactions – 2015

The New England Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks in an exciting game this Super Bowl Sunday with a score of 28-24. Woohoo. All we cared about were the ads though. Apparently 2015 is the year of dad love and screaming goats.

We captured the reactions from the peanut gallery for you – below are some of the quotes heard ‘round the chip bowl.

Dove Men+Care – “Real Strength”

WTF? Dads don't smell.

Nissan – “With Dad”

Every time Dad drives he crashes. Nissan is obviously for idiots. That's what I'm taking away from that.

Toyota – “To Be A Dad”

Where's the love for Mom?!

Look Up

Drowning in Social Media?

As you’re aware of, the usage of social media has exploded over the last couple of years and there are no indicators saying our usage will decrease. Five years ago platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Vine didn’t even exist and Facebook had just launched their “Like” button. Today, these platforms are seen everywhere and they are being used both by private users and by businesses for advertising purposes. A recent study states that there are now 1.7 billion social media users in the world and today’s technology allows us to be connected wherever and whenever.

A lot of the discussions and reports about social media usage are about youths and how their online communication can make them less interactive and social outside the world of social media platforms. However, in my opinion there are also other potential problems that could appear, for example: how can parent’s usage of social media affect their young kids?

Let’s take an example. Every morning, Mondays through Thursdays, I get on the same bus, which takes me to Stokefire’s HQ. Since a lot of people are commuting, it’s not unusual that you start to recognize your fellow-passengers. During my trips I’ve noticed a young woman, approximately in her early thirties, who always travels with a young girl, most likely her daughter (they look very much alike). I’m a person who very much enjoys observing my surroundings, and what I’ve noticed over the last couple of months is that the mother almost always looks down on her smart phone when I get on, until she and her daughter get off about fifteen minutes later. I have several times seen how the young girl seeks attention from her mother, for example by pulling the sleeve of the mother’s jacket or by trying to start a conversation, almost always without any positive response.

I have no idea what their interaction looks like during the rest of the day, but I’m curious how this type of behavior from parents can affect their kids in the long-run. I believe it’s very important for every individual to feel like they are being seen already from young age, since it helps build self-confidence and self-esteem. So what can happen when parents and their children are disconnected due to social media? Will these kids grow up and become attention seekers? Are they going to have a hunger for endorsement? Will they seek short-term acknowledge from online connections in the shape of likes and re-tweets?

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media and use it daily, but I’m also aware of how addictive it can be and how disconnected it can make you from the real world. It’s crucial for every user to remind themselves once in a while that there is a real world outside Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.

How do you use social media and how does it affect those around you? That’s something worth reflecting about.

With that said, I would also like to share with you that this is my very last post here. I’m heading back to Sweden for my last semester before I earn my Bachelor’s Degree and even though I’m very excited about that, I’m not as happy to leave Stokefire. I’ve had an awesome time here as an intern and I’ve learned so much valuable knowledge which is going to help me in my upcoming career. New adventures await, and I’m looking very much forward to see what the future brings to me.

Thank you for a couple of awesome months, Stokefire!

barney stinson’s not the only one who can accept a challenge

I love learning.  Always have, always will – because as you learn, you grow.

When you’re challenging yourself in ways you haven’t done before, you get the possibility to discover talents and skills you didn’t even know you possessed (or, you might discover that you sucked at something, but let’s stay optimistic).

Trying something new probably means you’re not going to become a pro in one try, but at least it might awaken something inside you – an interest, an eagerness to improve or a realization that you should hire someone to do what you just tried to do. Regardless, you’ve gotten a positive outcome – you’ve learned something and you’ve improved when it comes to your self-perception.

So, when Tate and Lindsay last week asked me if I’d ever worked in Adobe After Effects, I told them “No.” I’d never even opened the program on a computer before. To share what the program was capable of and what he hoped he could see from me, Tate showed The Girl Effect – the animation intrigued me so I said, “challenge accepted.” I had no idea what the outcome would be, but if you never try you’ll never know, right?

In order to create a text animation you need, well, words. Luckily the Stokefire crew is good at keeping track of all the memorable quotes that pop up in the day to day elocution of our wise President. Some of these incredible sound bites were given to me to play around with.

Here’s what I managed to do with it.

And the feeling I got? Well, I certainly want to learn more about text animation. It’s an awesome tool to create interest among the viewers and present information in a fun, innovative and engaging way.

This Swede is going to bring the concept of branding back home with her

When I began my education in Sweden back in 2011, I was determined that my upcoming Bachelor’s degree in Media and Communication would open the doors for a career within journalism. As a person who loves to tell stories I had decided that I could pursue a career in storytelling, and a journalist would be the perfect occupation.

At least that’s what I thought.

Before I got to the US I hadn’t quite encountered the term “branding.” Compared to the Swedish brand and advertising industry, the term “branding” is more visible here in the U.S. It’s not that Swedes don’t work with branding – in fact, it’s the other way around. A lot of agencies describe branding in their work, but they never use the term. They describe their way of working with strategies, storytelling and relationships, but very few link those processes to branding. That’s a shame in my opinion, since the term includes all those components in one simple, single expression. Swedes are very good at bringing English words into the Swedish vocabulary, yet letting them keep their English spelling and/or pronunciation (possibly due to the fact that many languages descend from Latin, but let’s leave that for now). My point is, Swedish professionals within this industry should become more aware of the fact that they are working with b-r-a-n-d-i-n-g, and include the term in their work.

So what contributes to the fact that branding isn’t as in the spotlight in Sweden as it is in the U.S.?

Well, one thing I’ve noticed – and remember that these are only my own reflections – is that Swedes are still very into PR. Over the last couple of years, plenty of new and hip PR agencies has popped up over our oblong country and a lot of youths in the beginning of their 20’s are aiming for a career within this field and marketing as well.

Fair enough, it makes sense, considering that it’s more crucial than ever to be seen and noticed in the world of brands. It’s understandable that companies need the help from advertising and PR agencies in order to get their message out there. But it’s also extremely crucial that both parties understand the importance in telling the brand’s story and that every campaign and move should be a part of the bigger picture.

Sweden is a small country and is very much influenced by the U.S., especially when it comes to pop culture. We watch the same sitcoms, listen to the same artists and get inspired by various viral phenomenon (like the rest of the world.) And no matter how much I love my home country, there are a few things I’ve learned here that I wish to see more of in a Swedish brand and advertising industry. Like the innovative and provocative way of storytelling, the absence of the Law of Jante* and how distinctiveness plays a huge part in the working process.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I love telling stories.
But as you might understand at this point, I’m no longer aiming to become a journalist. At all.

When I’m going back to Sweden, I’m going to make people within the Swedish industry more aware of the branding concept, and I’m aiming to become a skillful brand strategist and make the term more visible.

Because the story behind branding is a story I believe in.


*The Law of Jante is a negative concept within the Swedish society and describes a condescending attitude towards individuality and success. It’s a mentality that de-emphasizes individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers. Basically, individuals are not to think they’re special or better than anyone else.

Who are you when no one is watching?

We pass a lot of people everyday: on the bus, in the streets, at work. We are all there and we are all going somewhere. And how we look, how we dress and how we act say so many things about us. Do you sigh when you have to wait in line to get on the bus? Do you run toward the street to catch the green light? Do you smile and thank the person holding the door for you?

Small factors like these can reveal something about us for our beholders and without us even noticing, these people create assumptions about us as they observe us. A person who sighs in line is bored, a person who runs toward the street is stressed and a person who smiles and says thanks is nice.

Our actions, together with our expressions and looks, create who we are.
They create our personal brand.

Many of us aren’t aware of this. We might not think about ourselves in this way, but the truth is, in every minute of the day, we are branding ourselves. From the moment we wake up, until the moment we fall asleep. In all of the things we do, we are communicating something about ourselves and we are creating an image of ourselves for other people to interpret.

This is why I’m interested in branding. Branding isn’t just about getting a message out there. It’s not marketing, it’s not advertising and it’s not public relations. It’s so much more and it’s goes so much deeper. Branding is about finding the core – the soul – of something and be sure every small detail related to that core is coherent with the brand, regardless if it’s your own personal brand or your company’s.

Branding is about creating a long-term relationship, because branding strives after telling the truth and be consistent to the brand. Your friends and beloved ones didn’t choose you because you told them what a great person you are (marketing), because someone else told them what a great person you are (public relations) or because you been shouting out in public what a great person you are (advertising).

They have chosen you because you are that great person in your own special way.

With all the different voices shouting out their messages together with their brands in today’s society, it’s easy to get lost. I mean, think about it, how many of us haven’t been lost teenagers who tried to be “just like everyone else” or felt that something was the right thing do to “because everyone else is doing it?” As we grow up and find ourselves along the way, we realize what’s most important.

It’s not about what everyone else is doing,
It’s about being true to ourselves in everything we do.

I’ve thought about what I wish for my brand to be. Have you thought about yours?

It’s not every day you find your photo in the centerfold…

Washington Flyer covers the best of Washington D.C. and the Capital Region, including entertainment, food, recreation, nightlife, hotels, and travel. These magazines are distributed through the Washington D.C. airports so you can have some reading material on your next flight to Hawaii. (Please take us with you?)

Next time you fly out of Reagan National, check out the September/October 2014 issue which includes a story about the arts scene in the D.C. area. The intro page and centerfold of the magazine features a photo our art director, Lindsay Benson Garrett, took of Gin Dance Company.

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