Selective memoryAnother issue is that people are prone to forgetting past events.
"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 world. "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 resistanceSociety 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 st through 5 th street residents should move cars to higher ground" could improve these outcomes. 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 for.
- 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.