When it comes to disaster preparation, unpredictability is not the problem.
Only 11 months before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Ivan was a near miss. And yet still, Katrina swamped the city, broke through 50 levees, and killed close to 1200 people. Beforehand, National Geographic suggested the levees could withstand no more than a Category 3 storm. Local newspapers estimated that 250,000 people would be stranded because relatively few had cars in which they could evacuate.
You get the picture. They knew and did little. However, like the storm, their behavior was predictable.
Psychologists refer to a “normalcy bias” that nudges us toward retaining what we are used to. Many of us display “optimism bias” and assume that “bad things won’t happen to me.” Normalcy and optimism could be reasons we are bad at preparing for disasters.
Next, economists would add opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of a decision is the alternative we did not do. Choosing is refusing. Because I chose pizza for lunch, the opportunity cost is the salad I did not eat. When I watch Netflix, my opportunity cost could be reading a good book.
Similarly, disaster preparation has an opportunity cost. The expense of strengthening a New Orleans levee (a wall that prevents flooding) requires switching resources from something desirable. At the same time, disaster readiness could cost a politician votes when all was okay.
Our Bottom Line: Preparing For Predictable Surprises
But of course there is more.
A Harvard Business Review article says that predictable surprises require better psychology, organization, and politics. People could recognize the reasons they ignore impending threats. Organizations could enhance their ability to respond. And we could try to offset the political considerations that impede wise decision-making.
In The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters, the authors add to the list of causes. They suggest that we ignore longterm consequences and quickly forget the past. We also fall prey to inertia, to simplification, and herding.
Dare I suggest that knowing this daunting list of predispositions, we can still do a better job of avoiding countless negative externalities? We can.
My sources and more: I recommend this Tim Harford article and MarketWatch for more insight about inadequate disaster preparation. Also, do take a look at HBR for the corporate connection. Finally, for even more about hurricanes, NOAA and National Geographic have the facts.