When Disaster Strikes, Few Know Which Way to Turn

Americans are doing better at preparing for a disaster, but not enough have an evacuation plan.

Fewer than one-quarter of Americans say they have a written plan on how to safely evacuate their homes in case of emergency. (Photo: Paul Thompson/Getty Images)

Sep 21, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and last year's South Dakota floods seem to have motivated more Americans to plan for disasters. A new report shows a large number of U.S. households have emergency supplies at the ready if they have to hole up at home.

But people are in deep trouble if they suddenly have to leave their homes, say experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report, published recently in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found only 21.1 percent of U.S. residents have a written evacuation plan—something everyone needs.

The recent report, the centerpiece of September's National Preparedness Month, shows some improvement in disaster readiness in recent years. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the federal government started nudging Americans about the need to plan for disasters.

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For the most part, people have responded. The survey showed almost 95 percent of households had a working, battery-operated flashlight and almost 90 percent had a three-day supply of needed medications. Just under 93 percent had a three-day supply of food, 77.7 percent had a working battery-operated radio and 53.6 percent had a three-day supply of water.

Why so few people have drawn up an evacuation plan, however, is puzzling, especially considering it doesn't cost anything.

"Being prepared needs to become part of our culture, something we do without thinking about it," Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the Department of Health and Human Services, told TakePart. Last year, she said, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared 99 major disasters.

While you may have an evacuation plan in your head, "writing it down makes sure everyone is on the same page," adds Dr. Ali Khan, director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.

People who have been forced to flee their homes in the past appear more likely to have a written evacuation plan. Louisiana residents, regularly subjected to hurricane and flooding threats, were most apt to have a written plan, while Pennsylvania residents were the least likely: 54 percent compared to 15 percent. But evacuations occur more often than people realize, according to FEMA.

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Fires and floods trigger the majority of evacuations, along with hurricanes in some coastal regions. But industrial and transportation accidents, especially those that spew toxins into the air, also force people to leave their homes. Preparedness is essential since there might be little time to flee, and emotions may be running high.

People might be ignoring creating a formal evacuation plan because they simply can't imagine what type of event could force them from their homes. Instead of feeling stymied by that, FEMA officials urge Americans to write an evacuation plan that has several options—different destinations to take them in various directions.

Your household evacuation plan should also include these reminders:

  • Plan where your family members will meet. The Family Emergency Plan, which can be accessed on the FEMA website, can help you with this task.
  • If you have early notice that you may have to evacuate, fill up your car. It's a good idea to always keep your gas tank half full in case of a sudden need to leave.
  • Familiarize yourself with several different routes out of your area, and think about alternative means of transportation. If you don't have a car, make plans in advance with neighbors, friends or relatives who can help you.
  • Always leave early enough in the case of approaching bad weather or a wildfire.
  • If your area has recommended evacuation routes, follow them. Don't try to take shortcuts since those roads may be blocked.
  • While driving, be alert to downed power lines, debris in roadways or flooded roads.
  • Take an emergency supply kit with you, along with a battery-powered radio.
  • Take your pets with you. It's also a good idea to have a plan for sheltering your pets if you need to evacuate.
  • Notify an out-of-state contact—every family should have one designated —and tell them where you are going.
  • Shut and lock windows and doors before you leave. Unplug electrical appliances except for freezers and refrigerators. Heed advice from local public officials about turning off water, gas or electricity before you leave.
  • Leave a note in the house telling others where you are going.
  • Plan what to wear before you leave. Sturdy walking shoes and some type of protective clothing may be helpful.
  • Check with your neighbors when you leave to make sure they have a way out.

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"Be a lifeline," Lurie says. "Check on neighbors, know what they might need," especially people who are elderly or have health conditons.

While disaster preparedness has improved in the United States, government officials have more work to do, too, according to the CDC report. Hispanics were less likely than other groups to be prepared for disaster, signaling a need for more public outreach.

Have you made an evacuation plan? Let us know in the comments.