The Psychology of Riding it Out: Why People Don’t Prepare for Hurricanes

By Brad Swain


Why don’t people prepare for natural disasters?  They get plenty of media coverage, many are relatively predictable, and the amount of damage they can do is no secret. It seems quite apparent to anyone on the outside that people who live in at-risk places should prepare. Yet (I am ashamed to say) it took me, a behavioral researcher who spent 3 years studying how people respond to the risk that hurricanes pose, being threatened by the direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane to finally sort out flood insurance.

Policy makers have a hard time understanding why so many people don’t adequately prepare.”  They regularly assume, from the way they design legislation and word warning messages, that fear is the best (and possibly the only) motivating factor in getting people to leave. What they fail to understand is that individuals who are making these decisions are constructing their preferences in real time, and optimizing across a host of goals and motivations.


Why don’t people prepare and evacuate?  

To understand how behavioral science might help people prepare, let’s try to look at the problem through the eyes of the decision maker instead of the eyes of a rational third party.

Of course, some people have legitimate reasons for riding out a storm. First responders and other public servants who risk their lives to help others need to stay. Scientists, like those at NOAA, who study hurricanes themselves or social scientists (like myself) who study how people deal with hurricanes also choose to ride out the storm from a safe place.

Then, of course, there are the other folks who stay. Those who don’t need to, but choose to ride out the storms in their homes. These people often get cast in a negative light by those who assume they would leave if they were in the same position.

What could possibly compel you to stay in the path of a hurricane while alarms are sounding and the TV is full of images of people’s house’s being blown away? Surely fear alone ought to drive people to higher ground?


Do people fear hurricanes?

It turns out; people don’t perceive hurricanes as being as scary as you might think. Recent work by Katherine Fox-Glassman at the Center for Research on Environmental Decision-making at Columbia University demonstrated that when placed in context with all the other things in the world that people dread, hurricanes are a mere “meh, kinda scary.”

Fox-Glassman used a technique previously developed by Paul Slovic to measure the perceived risk of a number of different scary events and objects in the world. Participants rated various events/items on how much the dreaded them and how predictable the outcomes of each event would be.


Why People Don’t Prepare for Hurricanes | behavioral science

Perhaps surprisingly, when measuring dread, hurricanes don’t rank much higher than cell phones and fog. Additionally, like most natural disasters, their risk level is perceived as being much higher on the “unknown” axis (closer to nuclear power and terrorism). That might strike some of us as surprising given that hurricanes come during a predictable time of year and in predictable geographical locations. (Though exactly when and where they are likely to hit is sometimes hard to predict, even up to 48 hours in advance, as Irma demonstrated).

Much of the messaging we see, when trying to get people to evacuate, prepare, or buy insurance, focuses on danger and fear because they assume it motivates people.  Messaging may work for some people, but considering people seem to underestimate the potential damage of storms, we should consider other factors that go into making these decisions.


Even if you aren’t scared, aren’t there plenty of other reasons to prepare or evacuate?

In addition to not finding hurricanes particularly scary, it turns out that people have a lot of other reasons to stick around and put off buying insurance.


People Evaluate Risk Based on Past Experience

A study by Simmons and Sutter showed that people who live in natural disaster zones that regularly get warnings and evacuation mandates often become accustomed to false alarms. Irma is a great example. For a week beforehand, my fellow Floridians heard a steady stream of reports of a Category 5 storm heading for Miami, followed by evacuation orders for most of the southern part of the state.  This is, of course, the correct response by the media and local government. Particularly because forecasts put Miami firmly in the crosshairs up until just days before the hurricane struck the Keys.

However, what Miami actually got was closer to Category 2 winds and minimal flooding in only the most vulnerable areas. A bunch of trees went down, and the power went out, but not much else.  Evacuating costs hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars and days of your time – not a trivial amount, especially when all you come home to is a few downed trees.  

Even though this was the correct response at the societal level, we don’t perceive it that way.  Our mental model updates and says: false alarm. Enough false alarms (which is inevitable in South Florida) teaches us that this is just noise. Which makes picking out the signal hard to do and evacuating every time even harder to rationalize.


People Don’t Know What to Do with Their Pets

A 2011 poll sponsored by the ASPCA found that around 30 percent of dog and cat owners who live in the South (where hurricanes are more common) wouldn’t know what to do with their pets during an evacuation. Might disaster preparedness kits and evacuation plans that include Fluffy be adopted more readily?


Buying The Right Insurance Is Really Hard

It’s easy to sit in a dry armchair, do the math, and find it preposterous that people don’t buy insurance, as most economists do. Spend 10 minutes on the phone trying to figure out if you are covered, what kind of insurance you need,  and how much coverage you need, and you will start to understand why people are under-insured.  Add living in a condo building (44% of Miami residences are multi-family) and things really get messy.  My unit is (now) covered by 4 different policies (Wind external, wind internal, flooding external, flooding internal), only one of which is mandated at the state level.

It would take an entire blog post (indeed there is an entire field) to cover the ways we can use behavioral science to help people buy the right insurance. From simplifying the insurance buying process to reframing how people are informed, disaster insurance is ripe for behavioral research.


Looting is a Major Concern:

A factor I hadn’t even considered until footage of people getting busted started popping up on the news during the hurricane. With nobody home, no power, and no neighbors to check in for 7-10 days, areas hit by hurricanes become a fertile ground for burglary. Especially when first responders are already stretched as far as they can go. To many, there isn’t much difference between leaving and having your home ransacked by looters and leaving and having your home ravaged by a hurricane. Staying might prevent the first while leaving incurs yet another cost. You’ll need yet another type of insurance, homeowners insurance (bringing your total to 5), to be truly covered in the event of a hurricane.


Poverty Exacerbates Risk and Makes it Hard to Leave:

Perhaps the most important to address; poverty is often identified as the main reason many individuals do not leave. Booking a flight, driving 10 hours, or taking time off from work to evacuate can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Not to mention that the poor tend to live in high-risk areas because land is cheaper. The net result is that more of the poor stay behind or evacuate too late.

Virtually no government assistance is provided for disaster preparedness, meaning that individuals must learn what it means to be prepared and purchases items on their own. How might we get these individuals to take action on their own?

Sometimes called the Hurricane Effect, (a specific version of availability bias) we know that individuals are more likely to purchases hurricane insurance immediately after a hurricane strikes. Instead of making the biggest effort before the storm when stock is low and stores tend to be overcrowded, might we be able to leverage this same effect to get low-income individuals to purchase preparedness kits?

As for post-disaster interventions, Cass Sunstein regularly likes to hold up the 26 page FAFSA form as the model of Herculean efforts required to get government assistance, but with 14 pages of information, getting help from FEMA is equally complicated. Add that anyone filling out this form has likely just suffered severe damage to their living and financial situation, and you get a recipe for indefinite delays.

A quick behavioral audit might suggest that the form could easily benefit from adding a few defaults and milestones, and leveraging small area bias. Maybe a bot, like the one recently designed to help people affected by the Equifax hack,  to start the litigation process could reduce friction?

Research about how scarcity impacts decision-making conducted by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir may suggest a more radical approach. Their research suggests that resource scarcity creates a sort of tunnel vision that inhibits our ability to make long-term decisions that might be beneficial. If this is true, scarcity may impact people’s ability to both apply for complicated grants and use the funds effectively even if they receive them. They are likely to alleviate immediate burdens as quickly as possible instead of using the funds to improve their long-term situation.

Instead of large loans, small grants that are faster and unconditional, may do much more to temporarily stabilize the situation.  Small unconditional grants would both reduce the scarcity effect for low-income folks, freeing up bandwidth and providing resources to jumpstart the local economy, and allow them to make better long-term decisions later, when the larger grants that have longer processing time to kick in.

30 years of research in behavioral science shows us that choices are constructed. If we want to use behavioral science to help people prepare for hurricanes, it is important to remember that constructed choice is not limited to retailer shelves and cafeterias.  Natural disasters do not scare us into acting rationally. In fact, their infrequency and emotional charge do the opposite. Cultivating a deep understanding of the behavior people exhibit in order to design interventions is crucial for good behavioral design, especially when people’s lives are on the line.


Bradley Swain is a behavioral researcher at the Common Cents LabBradley Swain is a behavioral researcher at the Common Cents Lab. There he uses behavioral economics to help low and middle income families make better financial decisions.  Bradley received his Master’s Degree from the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystems Science and Policy in 2016.  His research at UM focused on how scarcity changes the way low income individuals evaluate risk and uncertainty.