Why Aren’t Americans More Prepared for Disasters?
Part of FEMA’s business is to make sure that Americans are prepared to respond to disasters, and in September — National Preparedness Month — the agency tries to hammer home the message, recommending a three step plan: get a kit, make a plan, be informed.
It’s a message the agency has been pushing for years, and with only relative success. Even 9/11 did not scare America into compliance: A 2007 study by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, for instance, showed that 80 percent of Americans were “concerned” about another terror attack, but only one-third were prepared for a major disaster. And last year, a FEMA survey found that while the number of individuals who had set aside disaster supplies at home had crept up from 50 percent in 2003 to 57 percent in 2009, the agency was still far from its goal of having 80 percent of households prepared with a communications plan, disaster supplies and practice at evacuating or weathering a disaster at home.
Part of the difficulty is the unpredictable and varied nature of disasters. Topping the news right now is a diminishing Hurricane Earl, which the East Coast has been bracing for all week and now looks like it’ll have a minimal impact. But across the world, a major New Zealand city is reeling from a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes for the most part occur at random (although the Himalayas apparently have a winter earthquake season). In the United States, Californians deal with earthquakes most frequently, but Seattle is also at risk and New York City has had a couple in its day.
In a terrorist attack, an hurricane or an earthquake, it surely won’t hurt to have at hand a gallon of water per person, per day, three days worth of food, a flashlight, dust masks, a first aid kit and other items FEMA recommends. But preparedness is more complicated than that. It means knowing that in an earthquake, for instance, it’s smarter to stay inside a building than to try to get out, the agency says.
In a earthquake-prone area, it might be easier to see the use of remembering that dictate than of keeping uneaten cans of beans under the sink for an emergency that never seems to come. But FEMA can’t tailor its national preparedness messages that closely. It can only prompt people to think about these problems in a general way and hope they’ll seek out more information their own.