Census Estimates Show Metro Areas Where Households Lag in Disaster Preparedness

Houston was impacted my major flooding in late May.

Houston was impacted my major flooding in late May. David J. Phillip / AP Photo


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Plenty of Americans don’t have evacuation kits, provisions or plans to help them get through a major emergency.

Following severe flooding that took place across parts of Texas during the last week of May, Michael Walter, the public information officer for the city of Houston’s Office of Emergency Management, went to a town hall meeting.

Many of the attendees were flood victims who had lost property, according to Walter. He said the number one thing people at the meeting wanted to know from his office was how to put together a household emergency kit that would better prepare them for future natural disasters.

“They had learned the lesson the hard way that they didn’t have what they needed,” Walter said.

Emergency management offices in cities around the U.S., including Houston, commonly publish guidelines for how residents can prepare themselves for incidents ranging from tornadoes, to terrorist attacks, to industrial accidents involving toxic plumes.

But data released earlier this year by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that a significant percentage of households in and around 23 major U.S. cities may not be taking some basic steps to ready themselves for natural disasters and other types of widespread emergencies.

The census figures are included in the 2013 American Housing Survey and show the estimated number of households in select urban areas that have—and have not—taken precautions such as assembling an emergency evacuation kit, or stocking-up on extra food and water.

Based on the Census Bureau’s estimates, at least 40 percent of households in 18 of the metropolitan areas, including New York City, Washington, D.C. and Seattle had not prepared an evacuation kit. Metropolitan regions in Florida had the highest percentage of households with kits, according to the survey estimates. These included areas in and around Miami (71 percent), Tampa (70 percent), Jacksonville (61 percent) and Orlando (60 percent).

Above: This chart shows the estimated number of households in 23 U.S. metropolitan areas that have emergency evacuation kits on hand. Survey respondents were asked if they, or their household, had emergency supplies readily available to take with them if they needed to evacuate their home. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 American Housing Survey.

Prepping in advance can be important, according to Walter, because natural disasters and other types of emergencies don’t always come with much warning. Last week, Tropical Storm Bill threatened Houston, but ended up largely missing the city. Local residents, Walter pointed out, only had about two days of notice before the storm was set to make landfall.

“We can have a storm spin up and be a Category 3 in two days,” he said “It’s happened before.”

Hurricane season runs from June to the end of November in Texas and other states situated on the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic coast. But regardless of the month, Walter said: “We tell people: ‘you need to be prepared now, because emergencies can happen all year long.’”

Houston’s Office of Emergency Management recommends assembling two types of emergency kits, one for staying at home without power and water, and another that is a “go-bag,” sometimes referred to as a “bug out kit,” which people can grab if they need to quickly evacuate.

The list for the stay-at-home package includes items like plastic tarps, a battery-powered radio, first aid supplies and a fire extinguisher. The go-kit guidelines call for things such as a waterproof bag with important documents, snacks, a spare phone charger and rain ponchos.

Walter noted that having a go-bag is especially important for some Houston residents because there are a number of petrochemical facilities in the city.

“If we had a hazardous material leak that was moving toward a neighborhood, we may issue an evacuation order and people need to leave right away,” he explained.

“They don’t have an hour to put stuff in their car,” Walter added.

Above: This chart shows the percentage of households in 23 U.S. metropolitan areas that are estimated to have not made certain emergency preparations. For the communications plan and meeting place categories, percentages were calculated using the total number of households with at least two occupants, not the overall number of households in the metropolitan area. Because of the estimation techniques used by the Census Bureau, and other caveats with the data, percentages may not add up to exactly 100 percent if combined with other figures in the 2013 American Housing Survey. The sliders and selection tools on the right side of the chart can be used to filter the data and compare selected metropolitan areas. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 American Housing Survey.

The census estimates suggest two ways households are consistently not taking steps to prepare. One is making a communication plan that doesn’t rely on cell phone service, in case it is disrupted. The other is setting a pre-determined place to meet in the event of an emergency.

In all 23 metropolitan areas, the survey figures show that at least 50 percent of households with more than one person had not taken either of these precautions.

There are also 16 regions where 40 percent or more of households do not have at least a three gallon supply of emergency water on hand for each person living in the residence, according to the survey data.

The 2013 American Housing Survey did not feature any urban areas located in California, a state known for its vulnerability to strong earthquakes. Previous survey data from 2011 did look at California cities, but did not include the emergency preparedness estimates.

Above: Figures included in this map show the number of households in each metropolitan area that have not taken each of the described steps to prepare for an emergency or disaster. Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 American Housing Survey

Walter highlighted the importance of another type of preparation that is not addressed in the numbers from the Census Bureau.

He said that many people in Houston discovered in the wake of the recent flooding there that they did not have adequate insurance to cover the damages they had incurred. Going forward, he said the Office of Emergency Management would make a push to educate people about how to insure their property in ways that help protect them from losses during natural disasters.

“We always tell people that they need to know the risks,” Walter said. “If they live in a flood zone, they have to have the proper insurance.”

Last month’s flooding in Texas claimed at least 23 lives. And some parts of Harris County, where Houston is located, saw rainfall amounts that totalled approximately 11 inches between the evening of Monday, May 25 and the morning of Tuesday, May 26. President Obama has since signed a disaster declaration for Harris and other affected counties in the state.

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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