Resilience Natural Disasters

These Americans are less likely to be prepared when natural disasters strike

“For many Americans, it is not a question of if you’re going to be impacted by a disaster, but when.”
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is seen in 2010.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is pictured in 2010. The Associated Press/ Gerald Herbert

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As the ramifications of climate change become more apparent to everyday Americans, what with sweltering sweltering summers, intense droughts, and increased flooding, a team of researchers at the Ohio State University set out to determine which populations are the most socially vulnerable under the threat of natural disaster. 

Using cross-sectional data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 2018 National Household Surveys, analyses showed households led by women, any with children under the age of 18, renters and individuals with low socioeconomic status were at the highest risk of being underprepared for disasters like hurricanes, floods and wildfires.

Researchers also found African Americans and Asian Americans were also less likely to be minimally prepared compared with their white counterparts. 

“For disaster policies to remain equitable, administrators and organizers need to ensure resources are devoted to communities that have been historically disenfranchised,” they wrote. 

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Understanding the barriers faced by vulnerable groups before a disaster strikes, in addition to connecting these populations with community resources, can all help better prepare these populations.

A total of 4,743 individual responses were included in the nationally representative survey.

The authors defined “minimally prepared” as individuals having essential elements needed for an immediate evacuation or sheltering in place for three days. Emergency funds and access to transportation were included in these elements, as were any goods needed to survive without electricity or running water for three days. 

In the past, natural disasters have taken extreme tolls on underserved populations in the United States. For example, recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, left out large swaths of the region’s African American population, as these individuals are more likely to be living in poverty than before the disaster struck.

Also in Louisiana, rising seas and coastal erosion have washed away 98 percent of an island inhabited by a Native American tribe since the 1800s. 

A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed 2020 was the costliest year on record for U.S. natural disasters, closely followed by 2021. Throughout the 2010s, a total of 142 separate billion-dollar disasters occurred, compared with just 29 in the 1980s, the report found. 

“For many Americans, it is not a question of if you’re going to be impacted by a disaster, but when,” said Ohio State study author Smitha Rao in a statement

When Rao and colleagues examined the socio-cognitive traits associated with preparedness, they found a belief in the usefulness of preparing was linked with at least adequate preparedness, while confidence in carrying out action was associated with being better prepared for natural disasters. 

“Socially vulnerable groups that we found were less likely to be minimally prepared may also lack confidence in institutions that are supposed to help during disasters,” Rao added. 

The researchers also found receiving information on disaster preparedness within the past six months was associated with an increased likelihood of being prepared, though 56 percent of the sample surveyed did not receive these materials.

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