Al Roker of the "Today" show recently
did a PSA
on how to think ahead for a disaster. The beloved weatherman has
covered countless hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters
and has seen the devastation first hand. Teaming up with the
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), his 30-second humorous
public service announcement message was: Plan ahead before the next
Do you know what types of disasters impact your community? Do
you know first aid? Could you go a week without power? And what
would you grab with a 30-minute evacuation notice?
Most people don't know. It's very much about denial, says John
H. Clouse, a disaster-preparedness consultant and founder of The
Joseph Group in Owensboro, Ky. He says only when people get a brief
taste of disaster, survive a crisis, or experience a narrow miss do
they become engaged in the process of disaster planning.
"Even though people think there will be fire, hurricanes and
earthquakes, they think the impact to them will be not that
severe," says Robert Meyer, professor of marketing at the Wharton
School of the University of Pennsylvania and co-director for the
Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes Center.
People have a very difficult time estimating a loss, or they
severely underestimate tail impact or tail severity, meaning the
total financial loss. If you're an insurance agent thinking about
pricing a policy, what you care about is not the size of the
loss but the size of the potential actual total loss. That's what
people have a hard time imagining, explains Meyer.
For instance, Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco is
having a difficult time
getting residents to voluntarily retrofit their building structures
to withstand earthquakes. While it's an expensive endeavor, the
real reason home and business owners balk is they can't quite
imagine the severity of loss in an earthquake, according to Meyer's
Here's more on how
Californians have their heads buried in the
Another issue is that people are prone to forgetting past
"That's a real problem with communities making large scale
investments in protections or homeowners making major investments
or retrofitting to be safer from disaster," says Meyer.
People have short-term memories of disastrous events; they
remember the event but forget the magnitude.
Worse, in most disasters, you may not know the right thing to
do. Many folks are prone to herding instincts and look to neighbors
to see what they're doing. So if the neighbors aren't evacuating or
are leaving cars in the flood zone, then it must be OK.
At the other end of the spectrum are the "doomsday preppers" who
are taking mega precautions against government chaos and the
breakdown of civilization - in other words, the end of the
"The wide gap between the two extremes is so expansive and so
easy to fill that people don't realize that solutions to disasters
surround us on a daily basis and they outnumber the threats 100 to
1," says Paul Purcell, a terrorism and disaster-preparedness
consultant based in Atlanta.
"This is where mass marketing plays on people's fears -- the
megawatt diesel generator bigger than your garage or the titanium
panic room," says Purcell. "People come to the conclusion they
can't afford preparedness."
The path of least resistance
Society responds well to positive feedback - some return on our
investment. But each year we look to renew our flood insurance even
though there's no flood -- there's no "positive reinforcement,"
explains Meyer. "You've wasted money -- you protected against
something that hasn't happened."
The default action is to be unprepared. Don't buy extra food,
don't evacuate, don't hang storm shutters -- these decisions
require zero action. The decisions that require some action are
naturally the ones that make you safer.
Rather than fight an uphill battle, Meyer says we have to take
unpreparedness as a given: People can't imagine the worst, they
don't think it will happen to them and they're uncertain about what
decisions to make. We need to make safer behaviors effortless. This
is called decision architecture or decision environments.
For instance, we should design evacuation processes or storm
precaution instructions so the effortless act is to just follow a
plan. If you want to make other decisions, that's fine, but the
effortless act is laid out for you. Likewise, cities could deliver
a hurricane supply kit as part of a tax bill. Each year the kit is
automatically delivered with your bill. You don't have to keep it,
but you have to opt out if you decline. "The idea is to not
restrict people's choices but provide an effortless decision to
increase safety," says Meyer.
Specific warnings are another valuable idea. In Hurricane Sandy,
there were a huge number of ruined cars simply because people
didn't move their vehicles to higher ground. But a specific warning
that says "1
street residents should move cars to higher ground" could improve
Right before Hurricane Sandy there was extensive light
preparation -- about 90 percent of people indicated they were
taking some precautions, says Meyer, based on a survey he did.
These measures included buying extra food and batteries, and
enjoying the day off from work. But many did not take serious
protective actions, such as those below.
- Assess what types of threats your community may be at risk
- Determine what you are planning for. A few snowed in days? A
week without power?
- Set up a basic communication plan. Enlist a friend or family
member in another city as a check-in for family members to call
with their status
- Stock food, water and other emergency supplies. FEMA has a
disaster kit list
- Think comfort foods because morale is crucial.
- The first people trying to take your supplies won't be a gang
of strangers with weapons, but your neighbors in need. Know what
your neighbor's needs might be. If the neighbors have a chain
saw, stock an extra chain and gasoline.
- Have documentation backup. Keep all important insurance,
mortgage and other certificates in one box or have them
photocopied on a thumb drive or CD.
- Have a plan for pets, and extra pet supplies.
Also, know what your home insurance does (and doesn't)
Ready.gov has more instructions for making a plan and being
A "Know Your Plan" app for iPhones can help you make disaster
plans for your family.