A Season of Failure to Learn Lessons

Americans have not learned the lessons of this deadly hurricane season.

Most families have not discussed what they will do if ordered to evacuate or how they’d find each other again if separated. Nearly half have failed to prepare a “disaster kit” with such basic items as a flashlight, battery-powered radio and medical supplies.

Only 65 percent are “very certain” that they would obey an order to evacuate their homes, according to a survey of 1,005 adult residents of the United States conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.

A spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the survey’s findings are “frightening.”

“People should be more prepared, but it’s obvious from this study that they are not,” FEMA’s Butch Kinerney said. “No one should think they are immune from a natural or manmade disaster. We live on a restless planet, we have terrorists, and there are a wide variety of things that can bite us.”

Yet the survey found more than three-quarters of Americans believe there is only “a slight chance” or “no chance” that they might have to evacuate their homes someday. People living in Southern states were twice as likely as the rest of the nation to believe they may face an evacuation sometime in the future. Residents of Midwestern states were least likely to consider the possibility.

For many years, federal authorities have urged all Americans to make disaster preparations. But only 39 percent of the people in the survey said their family has “discussed a disaster plan on what to do and how to locate each other if authorities order an evacuation of your home.”

Forty-five percent said they have not assembled a kit with emergency necessities like a flashlight, battery-operated radio, medical supplies and several days’ worth of packaged food.

“We’ve been trying to teach these things for years and years and years,” said Kinerney.

Participants in the poll were asked: “How sure are you that you’d immediately evacuate your home if asked to do so by police in a local emergency.” Sixty-five percent said they are “very certain,” 17 percent were “somewhat certain,” 17 percent were “somewhat uncertain” or “very uncertain” and 1 percent were undecided.

Survey participants were also asked how confident their homeowners insurance policies will “cover your home and personal property for most of the kinds of calamities that can occur where you live.” Fifty-six percent said they are confident their property is correctly insured, 36 percent had doubts and 8 percent were undecided or said they do not currently have an insurance policy.

Kinerney said many Americans have too much faith in an insurance policy that they may not have read carefully. “A lot of people living in Mississippi are now wishing they had gotten flood insurance,” he said.

Few insurance companies will issue policies that protect homes from flooding. FEMA does operate a National Flood Insurance Program, but only 4.7 million policies have been written under this government program.

“But we know there are tens of millions of homes in the United States that are susceptible to flooding,” he said.

The survey was conducted by telephone from Oct. 9-23 at the Scripps Center in a project sponsored by Scripps Howard News Service and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.

The survey has a margin of error of plus 4 percentage points.

(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is the director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University.)