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Survey of hurricane preparedness finds one-third on high risk coast will refuse evacuation order

Many could face shortages of food and water

According to a new survey of people in high-risk hurricane areas conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security, one-third (31%) of residents said if government officials said they had to evacuate due to a major hurricane this season, they would not leave. This is an increase from 2006 when 23% said they would not evacuate.

The survey was conducted in eight states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas—and only included residents of counties within 20 miles of the coast. The poll included a special sample of the New Orleans metropolitan area.

The top reasons people give for not evacuating involve issues of safety and security. Three-quarters (75%) say their home is well-built and they would be safe there. Over half (56%) feel that roads would be too crowded, and slightly more than one in three (36%) feels that evacuating would be dangerous. One-third (33%) worry that their possessions would be stolen or damaged while one in four (27%) say they would not evacuate because they do not want to leave their pets.

“Public officials need to be concerned that the further we get from the severe hurricanes of 2005, the less willing people are to evacuate,” said Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Officials need to remind people that many homes are vulnerable to major storms. They also need to ensure safe evacuation routes are available and the public is aware of them.”

These findings are based on interviews conducted June 18 - July 10, 2007 with 5,046 adults in high hurricane risk counties in eight states. The complete survey and charts with figures are available at: State data is available here: The results of this survey will be distributed to state and local officials for use in emergency planning.

Evacuation and Shelter Conditions

If residents of high-risk hurricane areas have to evacuate because of a major hurricane, most would be concerned about the conditions of evacuation shelters if they had to go to one. The biggest worries people have are that shelters would be unsanitary (68%), there wouldn’t be enough clean water to drink (66%), the shelter would be too crowded (65%), they would be exposed to sick people (62%), and medical care would be lacking (58%).

Hurricane Preparations

Many residents of hurricane-prone areas have not made critical preparations for a major storm. If running water were cut off due to a hurricane, one in four (23%) would run out of clean water after two days, and over half (54%) would run out after six days. If power were shut off, one in ten (9%) would be without food after two days, and nearly half (44%) after six days.

Hurricane Katrina showed that families can get separated and communication can break down in the aftermath of a major storm, but most residents have not prepared for that possibility. Two in three (66%) have not agreed on a meeting place if their family is separated, and one in two (49%) have not agreed on a phone number outside the region that family members could call. Of those who intend to evacuate and need help to do so (13%), half (50%) do not have that help lined up.

Key Preparedness Information

Past experience with hurricanes has identified some critical information that people should know in order to be prepared for a storm. Many residents of high-risk areas were unaware of some key information. One out of three (34%) do not know if their home is located in an evacuation zone. Thirty-nine percent do not know the location of an evacuation center in their community where they could go if they had to.

A large majority of people would be at risk of eating food that has spoiled due to a loss of refrigeration in a power outage. The USDA recommends that perishable food should not be eaten if refrigeration has been turned off for four hours. Only one in five (20%) knew that perishable food would be safe for just a few hours. One in three (36%) said that food is safe for up to one day, one in four (25%) said two days, and 16% said three or more days. In addition, one in five did not know that each household member requires at least one gallon of clean water per day, the amount recommended by the CDC.

Problems During Past Hurricanes

Nearly one-half (46%) of the respondents in the survey live in communities that were damaged by a hurricane during the past three years. The survey asked them about the problems they had during these hurricanes in order to identify issues that could be prevented in future hurricanes. The most common problem was getting gas to evacuate (35%). Twenty percent reported they did not have enough money at some point, 14% did not have enough water and 12% did not have enough food. Of note, smaller numbers reported needing medical care but not getting it (5%), getting injured (5%) or being threatened by violence (3%). One area where few people reported problems was getting the information they needed to keep themselves and their families safe (8%).

New Orleans

The survey included a sample of the New Orleans metropolitan area to see if residents there differed from other high-risk area residents. After their experiences during Hurricane Katrina, most New Orleans residents say they would evacuate for a future storm. Only 14% would not evacuate compared to 32% of residents of other high-risk areas. Six in ten (61%) do not know the location of an evacuation shelter if they needed to go to one, which is significantly more than residents of other areas (38%). Despite the dramatic images of people stranded during Katrina, over half (54%) of New Orleans residents are confident they would be rescued if they needed to be during a future storm.

“It is worrisome that New Orleans, the site of one of the most severe hurricanes in U.S. history, has such a large proportion of people who don’t know the location of an evacuation center,” said Professor Blendon. “An important priority for government and voluntary agencies should be to inform people of the location of shelters well before a storm hits.”

Even after Katrina, a substantial percentage of New Orleans residents are not prepared for a major storm. One-half of New Orleans residents (51%) have not agreed on a place for family to meet if they get separated. Thirty-nine percent have not agreed on a phone number outside the region that family members could call. A sizable percentage of New Orleans residents (23%) do not have more than two days of water if the water supply were cut off.

When asked to rate the response of government and voluntary agencies to the problems created by the last major hurricane, 78% percent of New Orleans residents said it was fair or poor compared to 39% of residents of other areas damaged by a hurricane. Only 19% of New Orleans residents said the response was excellent or good compared to 57% in other areas.

Problems Facing Minorities and Low-Income Residents of High-Risk Hurricane Areas

Hurricane Katrina illustrated the additional challenges facing minorities and the poor in these high-risk coastal areas during a major hurricane. This survey finds that although African-Americans (73%) and Latino-Americans (71%) are more likely than whites (59%) to say they would evacuate if government officials said they had to leave in the event of a major hurricane, they are also more likely to need help to do so. Seventeen percent of African-Americans and 10% of Latino-Americans say they need help to evacuate and do not have that help lined up compared to 3% of whites (Figure 7). Low-income residents also would have more problems evacuating than those who are better off financially. Eighteen percent of those making less than $25,000 a year and who intend to evacuate do not have the necessary help compared to 4% of those making $25,000 a year or more.

If minorities and low-income residents are unable to evacuate because they do not have help, they are less prepared to stay in their homes and weather the storm and its aftermath. Approximately one-third of African-Americans (32%), Latino-Americans (35%) and low-income residents (33%) say they are not prepared if a major hurricane were to strike their community in the next six months. This compares to 14% of whites and 19% of those making $25,000 a year or more. A greater percentage of African-Americans (18%), Latino-Americans (11%) and low-income residents (14%) do not have enough food on hand to last more than three days compared to whites (6%) and those making $25,000 a year or more (8%).


This is the 25th in a series of studies by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security. The study was designed and analyzed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). The project director is Robert J. Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health. The research team also includes Tami Buhr, John M. Benson, and Kathleen J. Weldon of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Melissa J. Herrmann of ICR/International Communications Research. Fieldwork was conducted via telephone for the Project by ICR/International Communications Research of Media (PA) between June 18 and July 10, 2007.

The survey was conducted with a representative sample of 5,046 non-institutionalized adults ages 18 and over in high hurricane risk counties in eight states. Survey participants included residents of all counties within 20 miles of the coast in Alabama (503 interviews), Florida (1,006), Georgia (506), Louisiana (1,004), Mississippi (513), North Carolina (504), South Carolina (507), and Texas (503). The survey included 502 residents of the New Orleans metropolitan area, where interviews were conducted with adults from cellphone-only households, as well from households with landline telephones.

The results were weighted to represent the total adult population in the high hurricane risk counties of the region as a whole. The margin of error for the total sample is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points; for the New Orleans-area sample, plus or minus 4.7 percentage points.

Possible sources of nonsampling error include nonresponse bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Nonresponse in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases, sample data are weighted to the most recent Census data available from the Current Population Survey for gender, age, race, education, as well as number of adults in the household. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, callbacks staggered over times of day and days of the week, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

Robin Herman | EurekAlert!
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