Wharton's Robert Meyer discusses his research on disaster preparedness.

The United States has just entered hurricane season, which lasts from July to November each year. It’s the time when conditions are most ripe for a storm to form off the coast and impact the mainland. Major hurricanes can cause mass casualties and catastrophic damage to property and infrastructure – as they did last year in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico — yet people never seem to be as prepared as they could be. That lack of preparation is the subject of research by Wharton marketing professor Robert Meyer, who is also co-director of the school’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. His recent papers on the topic include “Decision Science Perspectives on Hurricane Vulnerability: Evidence from the 2010-2012 Atlantic Hurricane Seasons.” He joined the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on Wharton Business Radio, SiriusXM channel 111to explain the psychological disconnect and what can be done to get people ready to take action.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: How often do people forget the fact that they went through a storm previously, yet they don’t prepare for the next one?

Robert Meyer: This is a question we study an awful lot. People actually have a really good memory of past storms that they’ve been through, but what people tend to forget, which often causes laxness in protection or preparation, is what it really felt like to go through these storms. Everyone will remember the storm. You look in the news, and [reports] remind you of it. But what tends to fade quickly is what it really felt like to go through these things. I think it’s part of human evolution that we tend to have a really short memory for pain. As a consequence, it seems really bad at the time, and you have people thinking, “Next time, I’m going to really fully prepare; I never want to go through this again.” Then three or four months later, you remember the event but forget what it felt like.

Knowledge at Wharton: How do we get people to better prepare for future storms?

Meyer: There’s no way you’re going to be able to fix that. That’s just part of human brains, human psychology. What it feels like to spend two or three days in the hot summer heat without electricity, and the incredible disruptions and all the trauma that’s associated with that — there’s no way you can reproduce that virtually. The only real fix we have is to give people a set of rules that they have to trust to go ahead and follow and not think too deeply about. Because once you turn the decision over to people and let them go on doing what they think is best for themselves, it’s probably not going to end well.

Knowledge at Wharton: When Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast, there were people at the Jersey Shore who stayed. It’s amazing that people are willing to stay in their houses, insure their houses, yet not worry as much about their lives.

Meyer: That’s an interesting thing that happens, and there’s a whole litany of reasons why people don’t evacuate from these storms. One is the feeling that storms come through all the time; we’re always getting warnings, and nothing ever happens. And it’s a big hassle to move because you have to pack up your stuff. Where you going to go? Sometimes it’s not that easy to find a friend or a hotel to stay at. Given the hassle of it, you just figure, “I’ll stay back, and when I need to go, then I’ll go.” Of course, that need never happens until maybe it’s too late. Other times, it comes from a very rational desire to want to protect your equipment and your home and so forth.

Knowledge at Wharton: You have done research talking with people in the Northeast about preparedness. Tell us more about that.

Meyer: At our center over the past number of years, we’ve had research programs where we start contacting people and surveying them two or three days before storms actually arrive. What we’ve found is if you ask people after a storm comes through — why did you prepare, or why did you not prepare? — they’re going to manufacture reasons. So, the idea would be to start surveying people two or three days in advance to ask them things like, are you making preparations? Why are you doing this? We see this real disconnect where people really believe the news media when, for example, Jim Cantore gets on The Weather Channel and starts saying the world’s going to end. People really believe it. You ask them, “What are the odds that your house is going to get hit by hurricane-force winds?” People will say 80%, 90%, because that’s what the TV tells them. But you ask them what they are doing to prepare for it, and they say, “Well, we’ve got an extra couple bottles of water.” There’s very limited preparation in contrast to what they think is going to happen.

“Once you turn the decision over to people and let them go on doing what they think is best for themselves, it’s probably not going to end well.”

Knowledge at Wharton: Would it be helpful if people were reminded of past bad incidents?

Meyer: It can be, but we’ve found it doesn’t work as well as you would think. Most people survive hurricanes without a problem. When you see the extreme damage and so forth, they are events that happen to other people. If you were to go back and show people what happened to the Jersey Shore during Sandy, most people viewing that would say, “Well, that wasn’t me because I wasn’t living on the Jersey Shore at that time.” As a consequence, it reinforces the idea that these are things that happen to somebody else. They don’t happen to me.

Knowledge at Wharton: It doesn’t matter whether a hurricane originates in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean, it can affect a large part of the country when it comes ashore.

Meyer: Absolutely. Pretty much from Brownsville, Texas, all the way up to Eastport, Maine, are at risk with respect to hurricane impacts. The Northeast is particularly dangerous in the sense that it’s an enormous population zone with millions of people living around the coast. While we get hurricanes up here, they’re not that common and tend not to be that severe because they go over colder water and weaken a little bit. So, it will often be the case for most people in the Northeast that hurricanes come every now and then, but they’re usually never quite as bad as what they say.

Knowledge at Wharton: Has this become a policy issue with cities, counties and states, especially in the last decade?

Meyer: Absolutely. I think the other thing that’s happening is that with climate change and global sea levels rising every year, all of a sudden, the storm, which maybe 30, 40 years ago would have caused minor flooding, is now causing major flooding. That’s a thing that cities have to prepare for — particularly in the Northeast, where really severe storms are fairly rare. They’re kind of the worst-case scenario, because people think these storms are not going to be that bad. But every now and then, you get a Hurricane Sandy.

The real challenge for cities in the Northeast, and cities everywhere, is to try to keep focused on that, and not let amnesia fall in the way and say, “Maybe this is an expense we can put off for another year.”

Knowledge at Wharton: But it does seem that there is more preparedness for hurricanes in certain parts of the country than for other kinds of events, such as tornadoes or flash flooding, because of the frequency.

Meyer: Hurricanes are nature’s most powerful storms and certainly the ones that cause the most damage and most loss of lives. For extremely strong storms, such as category 5 hurricanes, you can have winds near the center of these storms that are as severe as you would get with an F3 tornado. I’m thinking back of pictures of what South Florida looked like after Hurricane Andrew, and you really couldn’t tell the difference between a hurricane impact and a major tornado impact. But the difference is these are severe storms that cover many, many miles and last for several, several days. The impact of these things is really huge. It is appropriate that people should prepare for these things a lot more than others. Also, they’re able to because we have really good forecasts to let people know several days in advance whether there’s a possible threat.

“The people who are the most at danger of not preparing are those who have been through a storm but not a very strong one.”

Knowledge at Wharton: How difficult is it to get people to be proactive?

Meyer: It varies. We’ve done some studies as to who is prepared for storms and who isn’t. What we find is that the people who are the most at danger of not preparing are those who have been through a storm but not a very strong one. Effectively, they think that they’ve survived a hurricane, but they actually haven’t.

On the other hand, surprisingly, people who are often better prepared are people who move into an area and have never been through a storm. They’re listening to the end-of-the-world broadcasts that are coming on television and saying, “I’ve just moved to Miami or the mid-Atlantic, and I’m going to believe what they tell me on the news, that I’d better really prepare.” These people do prepare. Unfortunately, what happens is that then when the storm comes through and they find nothing really happened, then the next time they figure, well, maybe I might prepare a little bit but not as much.

Knowledge at Wharton: Do you get over-preparation in people at times?

Meyer: Yes. Sometimes it’s the case that you get the other extreme where people who have been through a severe storm and suffered real losses go perhaps the other way of over-preparing. The other [place where] sometimes you see over-preparation is in the area of evacuation. The classic example of this is Hurricane Rita in 2005. It came right on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, and there was immense news coverage of the disaster that unfolded in New Orleans and how tragic it was that people who didn’t want to, or who were unable to, evacuate were effectively stranded and had to be rescued on boats. So, when Hurricane Rita was threatening to approach Houston, the mayor said everybody’s got to get out.

The problem was that people didn’t know whether they should or shouldn’t get out. Everybody at pretty much the same time just got in their cars. There were over 100 deaths due to the evacuation itself, which is more than the storm actually caused. One of the dangers is that sometimes people don’t really know what to do, but they figure somebody else does, and they just imitate other people’s behavior.

Knowledge at Wharton: But it’s also the delivery of the message, correct?

Meyer: Right. I think one of the other problems in evacuation — and this is the really hard part of it — is that often the wrong people evacuate. In South Florida or in the state of Florida, when hurricanes come, many people evacuate who don’t need to evacuate. Why would you? If you live inland and have no particular threat to flooding or anything like that, the standard advice is to stay at home because that’s the safest place you can be.

But the problem is you’re probably going to lose your electricity. Most people don’t want to go through that. As soon as they see a storm coming, people who shouldn’t be evacuating will crowd the highways and try to find hotels, go up north somewhere, go to Atlanta. This makes it difficult for the people who really do have to evacuate.

Knowledge at Wharton: I think that was the case with Katrina. New Orleans went through a lot of examination after that, but there were a lot of people in different wards that never should have been there. They should have been bused out and put somewhere else.

Meyer: Right. I think most cities nowadays have, at least on paper, pretty good evacuation plans. In the Houston area, it’s the case that you have staged evacuations because they know it’s hard for people in Galveston Island who need to get out first. You have the same sort of staged evacuation plan in New Orleans. The problem is, that’s a great thing to have on paper. But half the people who evacuate, shouldn’t be; and half the people that should, don’t.

Knowledge at Wharton: In some places, disasters are so infrequent that they aren’t at the top of the list of concerns for local governments that are supposed to be putting evacuation plans into play.

Meyer: The thing with evacuation is that the city or the state will tell you that you’ve got to evacuate, but they don’t tell you how you should evacuate or where you should be going. One of the things we always tell people to have lined up is a family evacuation plan. It’s not just hurricanes; it’s for any kind of disaster that might happen.

“Preparedness is all in the individual, and the best insurance you have is your own ability to prepare for these [events].”

What we routinely find in our studies of hurricane preparation is even though people think a hurricane’s coming, when we ask what they are doing, almost 90% say they will do something like get extra food to last a couple days. But then you ask them, have you made evacuation plans? Do you know where you would go if suddenly you have to leave? Only a very small proportion — maybe 15%, 20% — say they’ve thought that far ahead.

Knowledge at Wharton: You hear the stories about people in the Midwest who have a bunker or a basement where they can go in case of a tornado. They plan for those storms. They don’t necessarily plan as much for hurricanes.

Meyer: Not everyone in the Midwest has a bunker that they can to go to. But it’s definitely the case that people don’t think through well enough in advance when a storm comes, what’s the set of actions that I’m going to follow, and when I should do it? It should always be the case that everyone thinks ahead — not wait until the day that the hurricane warnings are issued, but think in advance of when the storm comes: Where am I going to go? You have people that can come to your house, or you can go to their house. I think what’s risky is to count on being able to go and stay in a hotel because that’s probably not going to work unless you have considerable resources and can fly somewhere.

Another thing that people don’t do enough is check their insurance policies. Often, it’s the case that the storm is about to hit in 12 hours, and that’s when people pull out their insurance policy to figure out whether they’re covered and what to do. I remember that in work we did on Sandy, a significant portion of people assumed their home insurance policy covered them for flood. Flood is often the biggest source of damage from storms, and your home insurance policy does not cover flood.

Knowledge at Wharton: It’s almost like you need to put a schedule in place so that you’re making those checks throughout the year and you’re in a constant state of preparedness.

Meyer: We spend a lot of time talking about how to best get people to do those sorts of things. One of the things we’re often very critical of is, if you go on the internet and ask, “What should I do to prepare for a hurricane?” — what you see is massive checklists. They’ll have things like “make sure you have a place for your dog,” “make sure that you’ve got your prescriptions ready,” “make sure that your garage door is sealed.” It’s overwhelming, because maybe only a third of the things on the list are relevant for people.

We find that people are subject to what we call the single-action bias. That is, when people are preparing and see this huge list, they’ll do one of them and figure they’ve got it covered. They forget all the others. They figure they’ll do the other ones later on. The way you get people to take action is don’t just overwhelm them with a whole list of things they ought to be doing, but get people to focus on asking the question: If you’re going to do one thing in advance for a hurricane, what is that one thing? Make sure you get that one covered. When that one is covered, ask what’s the next thing you will do, and the next thing you will do after that? Mentally organize these steps and customize them for the person.

Knowledge at Wharton: How much of that does the insurance industry do already, and could it do more to help out the consumer?

Meyer: They don’t do enough of it. But I think they’ll be the first to tell you that they wish they knew more — and they try to know more — about the psychology of the people they’re insuring so that they can figure out how to get them to take better preparedness. We work with them a lot to try to figure this out, and it’s a real challenge. I think people often don’t understand that if you’ve got an insurance policy, the fact that you may get money back to cover some of that stuff doesn’t really cover the loss. It’s sort of like a burglary loss. Preparedness is all in the individual, and the best insurance you have is your own ability to prepare for these [events].