Americans are very worried about the threat of natural disasters—but don’t seem to be prepared for one. This conclusion comes from Chapman University’s recent Survey on American Fears, released on 21 October. The survey asked 1500 Americans to rank how worried they were about several types of natural disasters and then how prepared they were for each.

Tornadoes and hurricanes topped the list of fears, followed by earthquakes, floods, pandemics, and power outages. When asked if they were prepared for a disaster, however, an overwhelming majority of Americans responded “no.”

The answer isn’t surprising, according to Ann Gordon, associate dean at Chapman University’s Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who headed up the natural disasters section of the survey. A 2013 poll by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) found similar results: Americans are mostly unprepared for natural disasters, even those in the most vulnerable areas.

The biggest surprise, Gordon told Eos, was that “there’s no relationship between how afraid you are and your likelihood of having a disaster preparedness kit.”

Unprepared for Tornadoes and Hurricanes

Even in areas where natural disasters are a regular, yearly occurrence—such as in Tornado Alley, which stretches from northern Texas to South Dakota and experiences more than 1000 tornadoes per year—most of those surveyed said they weren’t prepared. Specifically, most Americans don’t have a disaster preparedness kit that includes such items as batteries, several days’ worth of water, emergency blankets, and nonperishable food.

Gordon and her colleagues then conducted a ­follow-up survey, asking respondents why they weren’t prepared. The majority of those polled (34%) said they thought that emergency services would help them. Gordon also found that those Americans with a higher income tended to be more prepared than those with lesser economic means.

Even those who can afford to be are not prepared for various reasons. Robert Meyer, ­co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania, did extensive research on communities affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. He found that even though people were worried about their homes or livelihoods, they didn’t think they would be affected personally. This is what psychologists call an “optimistic bias,” Meyer explained.

“People tend to think that others are more likely to have bad things happen to them than themselves,” he said.

Why Aren’t People Prepared?

Another reason people weren’t prepared was because they prepared for the wrong thing. During Hurricane Sandy, people thought the wind would be the most damaging aspect; in reality, flooding caused the most damage to homes and lives.

Even people living next to water think of hurricanes as wind storms, Meyer said. “People have poor mental models of hazards,” he added.

Meyer also found that people who had already been through a hurricane and had suffered significant damage were the most likely to be prepared. Those least likely to be ready had experienced a natural disaster but had not suffered significant damage.

“As a consequence, when it comes down to ‘next time,’ people have the tendency to think they don’t need to put out as much effort,” Meyer said.

Motivating Preparedness

The next step will be to find out what messages about preparedness will motivate people to act. In September, which was National Preparedness Month, FEMA organized a ­prepare-a-thon, and 17 million people across the country pledged to prepare for a natural disaster, whether by buying a kit or practicing disaster responses. However, more needs to be done to ensure that more Americans are prepared, Gordon said.

“We’re encouraging people to just get started,” Gordon said, “[For example], every time you go to the supermarket, get something for your emergency kit.”

To learn more about the Chapman University Survey on American Fears.

For a list of items recommended by FEMA for a complete emergency kit.

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.