Recently, fires and explosions broke out across homes in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, Massachusetts, as over-pressurized gas lines flooded homes with gas. The people and their homes are not that far from where I live, and it felt all the more real that I could have been impacted too.
Thousands of residents immediately evacuated their homes and there was little or no time to gather any clothes, medications, important documents, extra cash, and other important items.
What if I was the one who had to run out my door immediately? Could I grab anything important and essential? Would I have the time? What about my cats? Their pet carriers are in my basement – would I have time to run down to the basement to get them?
I found myself viscerally feeling the stress, anxiety, and fear that I’m sure thousands of residents were feeling in Merrimack Valley.
After 9/11 the concept of an emergency plan and an emergency go kit* grew, and since that time there have been regular media, education, and campaigns to increase the rate of Americans who have an emergency plan and a go kit.
Research from Columbia University and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tells us that about 50% of people state that their family has a family emergency preparedness plan, a steady increase from 35% in 2003.
However, the fact that nearly half of the U.S. population does not have or are unsure if they have a family emergency preparedness plan remains an issue of concern, particularly in light of the substantial efforts to improve population awareness and emergency preparedness since 9/11.
As part of my work at JSI, through a variety of emergency preparedness projects, I educate others about the importance of having an emergency go kit. But why haven’t I myself made a kit? I often say – I’ll do it next weekend. And then I don’t.
Why is preparing so hard? There are various factors, supported by research, that influence personal preparedness:
Personal barriers: financial barriers, time, space
We know as trainers it’s important to build on the knowledge, skills, and experience people already have. Most people have some level of personal experience with staying at home for a few days or being away from home for a period of time. Consider an expectant mother who has a bag packed ready to go to the hospital at a moment’s notice or the family planning for their summer vacation by packing a bag with those items they will need for the few days they are away from home. Both have basic experience with evacuation planning.
Perception of risk:
Each individual has a different perception of their vulnerability to hazards. How many times have you heard, “Tornados would never happen in New England” or “My house would never flood?” It is difficult for people to accurately assess their risk level, and most people assume that they are less likely to experience negative events than the average person.
Ability to influence outcomes:
Over a third of all Americans believe that luck is more important to surviving a disaster than preparing. We need to emphasize that taking steps towards preparedness can influence a household’s independence and comfort, as well as how they fare in an emergency, and that luck is not the only factor that predicts the outcome.
Presentation of the message:
Most information about preparedness is presented as a lengthy list of hazards that could impact a community – many of which most people have little to no experience with. This can not only be overwhelming, but also very scary. Presenting preparedness from the perspective of the actions an individual or household might take (for example, shelter-in-place or evacuate) makes the task of preparedness easier for people to wrap their heads around.
September is National Preparedness Month. What can you do to prepare yourself and your family, or prepare even better, for a disaster? How can you educate or train others in a new and different way to help them prepare?
*Being prepared means having the proper supplies you may need in the event of an emergency whether you must evacuate or shelter in place. The American Red Cross provides a go kit supply list. While the list may seem long, you don’t need to gather everything at once and can prepare a kit over time and per your budget. And depending on where you live, you may not need everything on the list.