Disaster Preparedness: Could the U.S. Hold Water?

Many wonder whether U.S. families are ready for disasters like those in Japan.

March 14, 2011, 6:12 PM

March 14, 2011— -- Unlike desperate countries like Haiti, many experts agree that so far Japan, a developed country, has fared well overall in disaster preparedness, which is measured by the country's immediate response following an earthquake and tsunami.

But many may wonder whether Americans are as prepared to handle such natural disasters.

The United States has experienced an average of 50 natural disasters each year in the last decade, more than 560 total, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The agency documented eight natural disasters this year already, mostly severe winter storms and flooding.

Click HERE to see a list of the items that should be in a basic emergency kit.

While there are national and local emergency plans in place, making the big picture response look satisfactory, experts say it's likely that most Americans themselves are not prepared to handle emergencies.

Indeed, many state and federal government organizations have their own set of challenges. A survey released Monday by the American Medical Association suggested many state health departments have no plan in place to assess human radiation exposure should a radiation emergency similar Japan's nuclear plant explosion should take place.

But experts say what could be as concerning is that family preparedness fares far worse than any governmental infrastructure.

"It's really in the personal preparedness phase rather than the response phase that we need to be paying more attention," said Jonathon Links, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness in Baltimore.

In fact, according to Links, most cities and towns across the United States have experienced some type of natural disaster. Yet, it is estimated that only about 10 percent of households are prepared to handle emergencies.

Emergency Preparation is Both Physical and Mental, Experts Say

For many families, the answer is simple, says ABC News' chief health and medical editor, Dr Richard Besser.

According to Besser, the top items necessary for families to keep on reserve in case of a disaster is a pack that includes a flashlight, radio, food, water, a heavy duty breathing mask, light sticks, and a first aid kit. Relief agencies like the Red Cross or FEMA offer emergencies preparation kits which include these essentials for anyone to purchase.

But the hard part, says Links, is getting folks to buy in to preparedness. For years, health communicators have worked to develop campaigns to motivate citizens to set up a personal plan should there ever be a disaster. But many consumers don't listen, he said, until an actual disaster occurs.

One of the major reasons is that many don't believe what has been happening abroad can happen at home, he said.

"The essence of the model is you have to convince people that there's a threat, and that there's something they can do about it," Links said.

And while it seems difficult to motivate many to physically prepare for emergencies, mental preparation may prove even more difficult.

"When people hear fearful messages of what might happen, they're more likely to tune it out," Links said.

That's why Links and his colleagues are working with faith-based organizations to help implement preparation measures among their community members. Many people are more likely to listen to their faith community than a government organization, he said. And not only can the community advocate for physical preparation, it can also build mental resiliency, he said.

"Communities trained in mental health become public health extendors," Links said. "When you've trained them pre-event, they can help during an event."

However, in many cases, community preparedness begins with the engagement of its individual members. Besser said he encourages everyone to pull together an emergency kit before an actual threat surfaces. And Links agreed.

"If we Americans did a better job of that, we'd be more self-reliant and would not need to rely as heavily on governmental infrastructure to save us," Links said.

Visit the Red Cross to purchase a emergency kit.

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