Poll: Not Ready for Disaster

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People tend to think they will be lucky. Wind, rain and fire happen to other, less-fortunate individuals. In a new TIME poll of 1,000 American adults taken on the eve of the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, fewer than one in five (16%) said they are personally "very well" prepared for a natural disaster or public emergency. Of the rest, about half explained their lack of preparation by claiming they don't live in an area at risk for disasters. Even among Gulf Coast residents, a mind-boggling 43% said they donít face much risk.

The truth is humbling: About 91% of Americans live in places at a moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, wind damage or terrorism, according to an estimate calculated for TIME by the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. We increasingly live in dense, coastal cities and consequently get hit by more frequent, more costly disasters.

But our curious confidence in our own safety keeps us from planning for the predictable catastrophes we know are coming. Even though about half of those polled said they have personally experienced a natural disaster or other public emergency, only a third had a plan for how their family would communicate in a catastrophe. Likewise, only a third had bothered to buy additional insurance to protect themselves or their homes from disaster or made physical changes to their homes.

Still, 30% of the people polled said that Hurricane Katrina had motivated them to make some preparations in the past year. And thatís a good thing, since more than half disapprove of the job that federal and local governments have done to help in the recovery from Katrina. Ironically, those in the Gulf Coast states — who should be most disappointed of all — show slightly higher approval for the job government has done at all levels and have greater confidence that the government could handle a major disaster.

Interestingly, one last finding from the poll suggests that many people now feel less than lucky when it comes to New Orleans. A little more than half (56%) said they do not think parts of New Orleans that might flood again should be rebuilt. Currently, that means almost all of New Orleans. The locals hope, needless to say, that the feds will kick in enough money to improve their odds. "Luck," as baseball executive Branch Rickey once said, "is the residue of design."