Hurricane Preparedness Survey Reveals Public Health Worries

BOSTON-- Three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the Gulf Coast, a new survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security shows that one-third (34 percent) of those affected by the storm report they are very prepared if a major hurricane were to strike their communities in the next six months. The top worries of respondents threatened or hit by Hurricane Katrina are that they would not have enough fresh water to drink (42 percent very worried) and that they would not be able to get needed medical care (41 percent very worried). The survey of 5,055 people was conducted in eight states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas—and only included residents of high-risk counties, those within 20 miles of the coast. The poll also included a special sample of the New Orleans metropolitan area.

The top concern of respondents who were not affected by Katrina is that they would have problems getting gas needed to evacuate (39 percent very worried). This is a concern that Katrina-affected respondents share (36 percent very worried) but rank below worries about fresh water and medical care. Those not affected by Katrina are much less likely to be worried about fresh water (27 percent very worried) and getting needed medical care (29 percent very worried).

"The top concerns of people in high-risk hurricane areas—having enough fresh water, getting medical care, and obtaining gas to evacuate—are all things that public officials can plan for before the major storms of this season hit," said Robert J. Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Katrina-affected respondents have a heightened degree of concern across a number of issues compared to those not affected by the storm. These concerns include caring for a chronically ill or elderly household member, having enough cash on hand during the storm's aftermath, dealing with the conditions at an evacuation shelter if they should need to go to one, and being threatened by violence. Approximately one in three Katrina-affected respondents are very worried about each of these problems while those who were not affected by Katrina are less worried.

These findings are based on interviews conducted May 27 through June 23,  with 5,055 adults in high hurricane risk counties in eight states. Twelve percent of the survey's respondents said they were threatened or hit by Hurricane Katrina while 46 percent were threatened or hit by a different hurricane during the past five years.

The results of this survey will be distributed to state and local officials for use in emergency planning.

Hurricane Evacuation and Readiness

Despite the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, a sizeable number of people living in high-risk hurricane areas say they would not evacuate due to a major storm if government officials said they had to leave. Nearly one in four (23 percent) Katrina-affected respondents and 28 percent of other high risk area respondents would stay in their homes. Of those respondents who would need help to evacuate (20 percent of Katrina-affected respondents and 18 percent of others), nearly half (46 percent Katrina-affected and 49 percent other high-risk respondents) have not arranged that help. Approximately one in four pet owners (25 percent Katrina-affected and 27 percent other high-risk respondents) do not have a place they could go and take their pet.

Challenges Facing Families with a Chronic Illness or Disability

Compared to other respondents, those coping with a chronic illness or disability in the household are less prepared for a major hurricane and are more worried about a number of storm related problems. The survey found that 14 percent of residents of high-risk hurricane areas live in households in which someone has a chronic illness or disability that would require them to get help in order to evacuate. Of this group, 43 percent do not have help lined up. Seventeen percent are not prepared at all for a major hurricane in the next six months compared to 9 percent of others. They are also less likely to have a three week supply of the prescription drugs they take (39 percent compared to 30 percent of others) and have a first aid kit (30 percent compared to 20 percent).

Evacuation shelters could also be faced with the challenges of supporting people with chronic illnesses and disabilities. If they get the help they need to evacuate, respondents living in households in which someone has a chronic illness/disability are more likely to go to a shelter (22 percent compared to 10 percent of others). The unique needs of families with a chronic illness/disability are evident in their storm-related concerns. They are more likely to be very worried about getting needed medical care (50 percent compared to 28 percent), suffering from heat exhaustion (45 percent compared to 23 percent), having enough fresh water to drink (41 percent compared to 27 percent), and having necessary prescription drugs (41 percent compared to 19 percent).

"This study shows that if nothing is done, thousands of people with chronic illnesses and disabilities could be stuck in their homes during a major hurricane," said Blendon. "Preparing now for evacuating these groups could prevent future tragedies."

Mobile Home Residents

Despite the increased risk to mobile home residents during a hurricane, 17 percent say they would not evacuate in the event of a major storm if officials told them to do so. Nearly one in four (23 percent) think their home could survive a category 3 or higher hurricane. When asked how prepared they would be if a major hurricane were to strike their community in the next six months, 17 percent of mobile home residents said they are not prepared at all.

Where to Go For More Information

Hurricane and tropical storm preparedness information including safe water, emergency supplies, and evacuation can be found at your local health department or emergency response Web sites or at www.cdc.gov.

Source: Harvard School of Public Health

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