Many US Households Have Inadequate Disaster Preparedness Plans

By Lisa Rapaport

April 29, 2020

(Reuters Health) - Less than half of U.S. households have an "action plan" to meet up and communicate in the event of a disaster, and preparedness varies based on socioeconomic characteristics, a new study suggests.

The cross-sectional study looked at data from the 2017 American Housing Survey on disaster preparedness for 16,725 households as well as data on socioeconomic characteristics, composition, and region.

Researchers looked separately at how households approached disaster preparedness for six types of resource-based items (vehicle available for evacuation, food stockpile, money for evacuation, water stockpile, carry-on emergency preparedness kit, and electric generator) and for three types of action-based items (plan with financial information, separate evacuation meeting point, and alternative communication plan).

Overall, 10,950 (65.5%) households fulfilled at least half of the criteria for resource-based items, and 6,876 (41.1%) had plans for two or more action-based items.

The current Covid-19 pandemic and recent natural disasters show how hard it is for households to predict in advance which types of emergency resources and plans they will need, and how essential it is to prepare for all of the resources and actions that may be needed, said study co-author Lucila Zamboni of the University at Albany, in New York.

"The major challenges that households are currently facing with COVID-19 are economic losses due to furloughs and other job losses due to businesses shutting down or staying at home from work due to illness or family caretaking, needing food stockpiles when sheltering in place, and having emergency preparedness kits," Zamboni said by email.

"For natural disasters like hurricanes, tornados, and wildfires, alternative meeting points, vehicles available for evacuations, water stockpiles, and electric generators are relevant," Zamboni added.

Only 579 households (3.5%) met all nine criteria for disaster preparedness, the study found.

Most households (83.8%) had food stockpiles, vehicles available for evacuation (96.2%), and financial resources for evacuation (80.8%).

Other resources were not as commonly stocked. More than half of households (59.8%) had water stockpiles and emergency preparedness kits (54.8%) but only 18.9% had generators.

Most households (82.5%) had a plan with their financial resources, but only 38.2% had established emergency evacuation meeting points and just 27.9% had contingency communication plans in place.

Households with higher income and education levels, and married occupants, had higher levels of overall preparedness, as did households headed by adults 65 and older and households in the South.

A total of 7163 households (42.8%) included children, and 3533 households (21.2%) included a person with a disability. The researchers found that households headed by women, or with children or residents with disabilities were less likely to be prepared for emergencies.

Households with black or Hispanic heads were more apt to have items directly related to emergencies like carry-on emergency kits (adjusted odds ratio 1.26) or communication plans (aOR 1.55), but less likely to have at least half of the needed stockpiles of food or other resources (aOR 0.89).

One limitation of the study is its inclusion of data only from heads of households who responded to disaster preparedness questions on the survey, and this group might be more prepared than individuals who skipped these questions, the study team notes.

The study also didn't examine which plans or supplies might lead to better outcomes when disaster strikes, said Lauren Clay, an assistant professor of health administration and public health at D'Youville College in Buffalo, New York.

"Research needs to focus on how families are coping, what items and actions are useful to prepare for those circumstances, and then develop preparedness guidelines to support households in completing those actions and acquiring those supplies," Clay, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.

While household-level preparedness is important, it also wouldn't be sufficient to provide everything that people in many emergency situations, noted Helene Joffe, a professor of psychology at University College London in the UK who wasn't involved in the study.

"Much of the need for preparedness for epidemics like Covid-19 happens not at the level of households but at the level of governments," Joffee said by email. "So we need to be very careful about individualizing this pandemic preparedness."

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, online April 27, 2020.