Poll: N.J. Residents Back Gov’t Storm Mitigation Efforts but Few Willing to Pay

A newly published study from Rutgers University in New Jersey shows that most state residents strongly support government programs aimed at lowering the likelihood of severe damage from future hurricanes. The study also found, however, that only a small fraction of those surveyed were willing to contribute to a fund to pay for implementing the government programs.

Researchers at Rutgers University surveyed 875 New Jersey residents in early 2013, some four months after Superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast in October 2012. The study was recently posted electronically in the journal Risk Analysis, a publication of the Society for Risk Analysis.

The study, titled “Public Support for Policies to Reduce Risk after Hurricane Sandy,” found that 53 to 63 percent of respondents favored government policies such as allowing local governments to require disaster-resistant home construction and having federal and state officials designate storm buffer areas as off limits to development.

Additionally, nearly half of the respondents favored government financial incentives to rebuild damaged areas in ways that would reduce future risk. More than 40 percent also supported prohibiting housing in certain areas.

But the study found that almost all respondents were unwilling to pay extra out of their own pockets for mitigation and other programs. Regarding support for an income tax hike of one percent for five years, the study found that only 19 percent of respondents strongly supported the tax, in contrast to 69 percent who strongly opposed it.

And only 24 percent said they would strongly support a one percent increase in the state’s sales tax for five years, in contrast to 64 percent who strongly opposed that option. Only 14 percent of respondents supported a five-cents-per gallon tax on gasoline sales for five years, compared with 78 percent who strongly opposed the idea.

“We surveyed a group of people about four months after Hurricane Sandy. What we observed is that the global climate change is not something that is too distant from their feelings and concerns at this point,” said Michael Greenberg, professor and associate dean of the faculty at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Greenberg was lead researcher for the study.

“As a result of that, they were very interested in restricting exposure to additional storm damage,” Greenberg said. But he noted that most people weren’t willing to contribute much of their own money, even to a dedicated fund for this specific purpose.

“I think there are a couple of things going on here,” Greenberg said. “One is that they do pay taxes. They feel like they’ve already paid, and they feel that if there is a presidential disaster declaration, the money they contributed through taxes over the years ought to be put into that.”

“They feel that when these presidentially declared disasters occur, the federal government ought to pay and the insurance companies to which people pay insurance premiums ought to pay.”

Secondly, Greenberg said, the public doesn’t necessarily trust the government to use a dedicated amount of money for a particular purpose. “A good example is the payments of the cigarette industry in different states for all the diseases that were caused by smoking,” he said. “After a while, a lot of the states took that money and put it into the general revenue. So a lot of the members of the public don’t trust government to follow through with what they said they were going to do.”

On the other hand, the study found 53 percent of respondents strongly supported a special one percent tax on hotels, motels, airports and recreation facilities for five years. The report’s authors commented that the consensus was to pass the cost to future generations or to visitors, many of whom will not be from the state.

And 64 percent of respondents agreed that climate change is a risk to them and their family and friends. But half of the respondents also said they felt that state and local government did not understand the implications of global climate change for their region. “That was very interesting, that they don’t trust government to understand it all and know exactly what to do about it in their area,” Greenberg said. “So they would trust scientists, but they wouldn’t necessarily trust officials who have to implement the policies.”

The study also said two-thirds of survey respondents did not trust the local news media to inform them accurately about the global climate change. “A lot of people don’t trust the mass media. Some don’t trust it because they think that the media are more interested in exaggerating some risks and trying to convince people that other risks are less important than they really are,” Greenberg said. “In other words, there is a concern that some of the media exaggerate in one direction or the other.”

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