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How Prepared Are Americans for Emergencies?

How Prepared Are Americans for Emergencies?

Many are somewhat prepared to encounter an emergency situation, but unexpected disasters could test the resources of even the most prepared.
Stocked pantry
Stocked pantry Source: Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that the country isn't as prepared for emergencies as the public once believed. While individuals and communities have shifted their behavior in major ways to protect themselves from COVID-19, many Americans living in the country's largest cities may still be underprepared for the chaos that could result from other kinds of emergencies.

According to ValuePenguin's analysis of the Census Bureau's American Housing Survey, large portions of people living in the nation's biggest cities could be vulnerable in emergencies where resources like water are hard to come by.

Residents who live in the sections of the country most at risk of natural disasters tend to be prepared for emergencies. However, even in the most-prepared areas, not everyone has the necessary resources to get through a disaster. In an emergency, the loss of life and property for many would underscore this disparity.

Key findings

  • While most people follow the government's guidelines for stockpiling non-perishable food, about 40% of the population doesn't have three days' worth of water set aside.
  • The majority of people would rely on electronic media to receive important information during a state of emergency, even though only 16% of the population has a generator.
  • Nearly nine in 10 people have a plan for their pets in the event of an emergency that required them to evacuate.
  • With most residents having access to extra supplies and planned for a potential evacuation, Houston is the most-prepared large city in the country — but even cities with high marks have scores of unprepared inhabitants.
  • An emergency caused by a flood could surprise thousands of uninsured, even in high-risk cities like Miami and Houston.

Most people are somewhat prepared for short emergencies, but extended disruptions to reliable institutions or evacuations could spell trouble for many Americans

The coronavirus pandemic's pressure on the nation's supply lines has highlighted areas that could be susceptible to panic buyers, especially if a disruption drags on. However, in the event of a short-term emergency, most of the population has enough non-perishable food to last.

For emergencies, including pandemics, the government recommends people stockpile enough non-perishable food and water to last at least three days. While more than eight in 10 Americans have enough food set aside, more than 40% don't have enough water to last the length of a short-term emergency.

In addition to this oversight, the majority of people haven't prepared enough to get by without electricity. It's not uncommon for strong storms to result in power outages, but 61% of people would rely on electronic sources, such as televisions and the internet, for important information during an emergency. Furthermore, fewer than two in 10 people have access to generators for backup power.

The data suggests that an emergency that pushes people out of their homes or unexpectedly separates families could have severe consequences for many. Only 26% of people have identified a meet-up place in the event of an emergency. Moreover, only about half have emergency evacuation kits ready to go if they had to leave suddenly.

The vast majority of Americans have plans for their pets if they need to evacuate their homes. Only 11% of the country would need help sheltering their pets if they had to leave their homes. This was the second-highest rate of assentors, only slightly behind people who answered they would have car access in the event of an evacuation.

However, although more than 90% of people have access to a car to evacuate an area, we found the results are more pessimistic depending on the region. For example, 30% of people don't have access to a car in the New York-New Jersey metro area, relying heavily on the extensive rail system for transportation.

How can you prepare for natural disasters and emergencies?

The safety guidelines for emergency preparedness established by the federal government are nearly the same in cases of pandemics and other emergencies, like natural disasters. This means that you can easily prepare for many types of emergencies at once. You should stock enough non-perishable food and water to last at least three days in isolation, in addition to the following:

  • Plan how to communicate and receive information without using electricity: Consider getting a hand-cranked or battery-powered radio to avoid outages during and after an emergency.
  • Prepare an emergency kit: The CDC, Red Cross and Department of Homeland Security recommend this kit include basic essentials, like a flashlight, batteries, cash, a universal tool, and first-aid supplies.
  • Carry financial information in a safe place: FEMA suggests that keeping identification in the form of your Social Security number and bank routing information can make it easier to receive federal aid if you were displaced from your home.

The preparedness of a city is directly related to its chances of seeing expected emergencies, such as those resulting from weather, but this could leave them open to unforeseen events — like COVID-19

Cities are generally prepared for expected or semi-recurrent sources of emergencies. For example, we found that the most-prepared large cities for most emergencies were flood-prone Houston, Miami and Tampa, as well as Richmond and Oklahoma City — cities where tornadoes and strong summer storms can do damage.

On the other hand, the cities that aren't prepared for emergencies don't typically have to be. Natural disasters in these places are generally not expected. The least-prepared cities include Phoenix, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Antonio and Rochester.

Most of the biggest cities in the country are only somewhat prepared, including Los Angeles and New York City. Typically, this indicates at least one sector where a middling city's residents are underprepared for an emergency.

For example, families in New York are comparatively unprepared to be separated from each other, as only one-third have a meeting spot in place. Los Angelenos are less likely to have access to vital financial information or to have evacuation funds of at least $2,000 — about 30% of residents are unlikely to have these resources.

The number of people who are prepared for emergencies, even in the most highly ranked cities, is never universal. This means that there are always considerable portions of the nation's population who can't weather emergencies. Unexpected crises could exacerbate the divide between the prepared and unprepared even further.

Many aren't doing enough to protect themselves from more common emergency situations, like floods or hurricanes

While it's true that cities that are susceptible to hurricanes and flooding are more likely to be prepared, many lack the financial protection that flood insurance affords. A typical homeowners insurance policy covers some forms of water damage, but its coverage and loss of use provision doesn't apply to any damage caused by a flood or storm surge.

This makes it all the more surprising that in Miami and Houston, where much of the population lives in moderate-to-high-risk flood zones, six in 10 people don't have flood insurance. Uninsured property owners in Houston and Miami aren't the only ones who could suffer from a flood emergency, though.

Nationally, only about 7% of homeowners have flood insurance. A surprise, out-of-the-ordinary storm season could inflict significant damage on residents of places like New York, which was hit by the unusual Hurricane Sandy in 2011 and where only 15% of people have flood insurance.

Methodology

We used data from the American Housing Survey to analyze which cities in the country are most prepared for a natural disaster or other emergency. We assigned ranks to each of the 25 largest cities in the United States according to how their inhabitants responded to their preparedness. Then we indexed the cities to illustrate overall performance without weighing one category over another. We've displayed our full index below:

RankCityPreparedness index
1Houston100.00
2Miami100.00
3Tampa-St Petersburg89.34
4Richmond77.05
5Oklahoma City62.30
6Atlanta60.66
7Detroit59.02
8Seattle57.38
9Baltimore56.56
10Riverside47.54
11Dallas45.90
12New York City42.62
13San Francisco39.34
14Minneapolis37.70
15Philadelphia31.97
16Washington DC29.51
17Los Angeles27.05
18San Jose22.95
19Birmingham20.49
20Phoenix13.11
21Chicago9.02
22Las Vegas6.56
23San Antonio2.46
24Rochester0.00