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International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters August 2014, Vol. 32, No.3, pp. 459-483

The Private and Social Benefits of Preparing For Natural Disasters

Robert Stein

Department of Political Science, Rice University

Birnur Buzcu-Guven

Houston Advanced Research Center

Leonardo Dueñas-Osorio

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University And

Devika Subramanian

Department of Computer Science, Rice University


Governments at all levels make significant efforts to inform the public about how to prepare for natural disasters.  Before the start of the U.S. hurricane season (i.e., on or about June 1)  state and local governments along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts flood the airwaves, social media and other paid and free media outlets with admonitions for the public to make preparations for hurricanes and severe weather.  Compliance with these directives and recommendations vary but are well understood to be a function of risk, perceived and real, prior experiences, and social, situational and physical impediments to compliance. Though a great deal is known about why individuals prepare for natural disasters and their compliance with directives from emergency and government officials, less is known about the efficacy of these efforts

In  this  paper  we  inquire  about  the  consequences  of  preparing  for  hurricanes  for individuals  and  the  larger  community.Are  there  collective  action  benefits  from individual-level  preparation  activities;  do  the  actions  individuals  take  to  prepare themselves for a pending hurricane have social benefits for the entire community?  We identify  shadow  evacuations  –  persons  evacuating  from  areas  not  designated  for evacuation--as a significant social cost that might be mitigated by individual preparation for severe weather.

We test our hypotheses with data from a survey conducted with residents of Harris County, Texas, after Hurricane Ike in 2008. We find that preparation has a negative effect on personal injury and property damage and that preparation has a significant and negative effect on the likelihood individuals evacuate, especially residents of non-evacuation areas (low risk areas). Our findings have strong implications on how emergency planners and local officials should prepare for and communicate with the public before severe weather episodes.

Read the paper here