Environmental Protection

Poll: Most Americans Think Devastating Natural Disasters Are Increasing

Reading or watching the news, one might be struck by the seemingly constant barrage of reports of disasters, both natural and unnatural in origin. In fact, some colleges and universities have begun offering coursework in emergency and disaster management, as these unplanned events continue to shape our world. When Americans were asked if they think that there have been more devastating natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes recently, three quarters of U.S. adults say they believe there have been more 76 percent, with three in 10 saying they believe there have been many more 31 percent. Only 2 percent say they believe there have been fewer, and 23 percent say they believe there have been neither more nor fewer.

Despite a large majority reporting that they perceived an increase in devastating disasters, only 56 percent say they are prepared for one of these disasters or a long-term power outage by having the necessary supplies, food and water for three days. Conversely two in five Americans say they are not prepared in this way (41 percent), although older Americans overall are better prepared than younger ones: two-thirds of those age 66 years and older say they are prepared for a disaster or long-term power outage (67 percent), compared with: 59 percent of Baby Boomers, aged 47-65; 54 percent of Gen X, aged 35-46; and less than half of Echo Boomers, aged 18-34 (45 percent).

Americans are concerned about different disasters, particularly depending on where they live. While half of Americans say they think a tornado (52 percent) or a snow and/or ice storm (48 percent) will affect them, the numbers vary greatly by region. Some regional concerns are:
•    Easterners think that a snow and/or ice storm will be most likely to directly affect them (77 percent), and while Midwesterners are concerned about this as well (79 percent), an even greater number say they believe tornados will impact them (89 percent).
•    Southerners are also concerned about tornados (66 percent), and half say they are concerned about hurricanes (54 percent) or droughts (50 percent).
•    A majority of those in the West believe earthquakes will affect them (66 percent), which is a concern shared by very few in all other regions (between 7 percent and 16 percent);
•    Although only 11 percent of Americans think a nuclear power plant disaster or meltdown will affect them directly, it is the only issue listed that most people say the federal government is worst-equipped to handle (59 percent). One-third say the government is worst-equipped to handle terrorism (34 percent), which is down from the 48 percent in 2006.
•    In 2006, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, half of Americans (50 percent) said that the federal government was worst-equipped to handle hurricanes. Five years later just 16 percent believe this.

Half of Americans say they are most likely to get information about emergencies on television (51 percent) while fewer than one in five say they get information from the radio (18 percent). Just over one in ten get information about emergencies from online news sites (13 percent) and significantly fewer get information from other people (4 percent), Facebook (3 percent), text messages (2 percent), newspapers (2 percent), Twitter (1 percent) or something else (1 percent). Different generations access information about emergencies differently: The older one is, the more likely he or she is to get his or her information on TV, while the younger one is the more likely he or she is to get information from an online source (a news site, Facebook or Twitter).

The same poll finds the lowest number who believe in global warming since the question was first asked in 1997 (44 percent now do, down from 51 percent in 2009 and 71 percent in 2007). These numbers do not suggest, however, that a majority now disbelieve in global warming—just over one-quarter say they do not believe in it (28 percent) and the same number say they are not sure. Fittingly, among those who say there have been more natural disasters recently, there is no consensus whether this is a result of global warming or not (38 percent say it is, 28 percent say it's not and 34 percent are not sure).

The world around us is changing—disasters seem to strike more frequently than before and individually each one seems more impactful in nature. What Americans today seem unsure of, however, is how to prepare for these unexpected events, and what is causing them. Luckily with today's confluence of research, experience and communication technology, while we may not be able to stop natural-born disasters, we may be able to work together to significantly limit their tragic results.

This Harris Poll of 2,163 adults surveyed online between June 13 and 20, 2011 by Harris Interactive.


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