American disaster preparedness: How are we doing?

Mon Feb 24 2020

A woman looks out a window, drinking coffee

Any insurance professional will tell you that having insurance does not provide protection against things going wrong. And when something inevitably does go wrong, a person’s disaster preparedness will affect outcomes at least as much as their insurance policies.

With that in mind, we decided to check in with how Americans are doing on the disaster preparedness front, specifically as it relates to the kinds of risks that affect homeowners. To do that, we looked at US Census data that examines disaster preparedness for all occupied units in the country.

(Note: while the full US Census is conducted only once every 10 years, this disaster preparedness data is updated more often; the most recent data available, which we used, is from 2017.)

Here, we’ll take a look at how Americans are doing overall, highlight a few differences by age group, and offer some tips for creating a disaster preparedness plan. Our findings are focused on 10 aspects of disaster preparedness:

  • Having a generator
  • Having enough nonperishable food to last the household for three days
  • Having at least three gallons of bottled water per person
  • Having a household communication plan if cell service is disrupted
  • Having an agreed-upon meeting location
  • Having an emergency evacuation kit
  • Having access to vital financial information
  • Having evacuation funds up to $2,000
  • Availability of an evacuation vehicle
  • Flood insurance

Where we’re strong on disaster preparedness

We live in a big country, and the disaster risks vary from one region to another. Because we didn’t break our data down geographically, we focused on preparation measures that offer universal benefits. Let’s start by looking at where we’re doing best.

Food & water

Collectively, Americans are pretty good at having enough nonperishable food in the house: about 85% of us have enough to last the household for three days, and that number doesn’t fluctuate much by age group.

We could be better about bottled water, though: while 62% of Americans overall have adequate bottled water on hand, younger groups perform worse on this metric.

The bad news is that even in the best-performing age groups, only about two-thirds of Americans have adequate water supplies for a disaster. The good news: bottled water is relatively cheap and easy to come by. Even better, it doesn’t expire, so by stocking up now, you can check something off your disaster preparedness to-do list and not worry about it moving forward.

Access to financial documents

Another area of strength for the nation’s disaster preparedness plans: is access to important financial information. Overall, 83% of Americans note that they can easily access financial docs in the event of a disaster, and no group falls below 80%.

The nation’s youngest homeowners deserve a special shout-out, though 91% of homeowners ages 25 to 29 have easy access to these documents.

If you’re among the 20% or so of Americans without an easy way to get to your financial records, consider setting up a cloud storage system that you can access from any desktop or mobile device.

Evacuation vehicle

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a country of drivers, about 96% of Americans have a vehicle they could use to evacuate in the event of a disaster. The only group notably lower than that is those aged 75 and older, where access to a vehicle came in at 92%.

It’s hard to argue with numbers that strong, so we’ll highlight two takeaways in the event of a disaster:

  • Be sure to have spare gas on hand, especially during hurricane, tornado, or wildfire season (or whatever disasters threaten your area of the country).
  • If you have friends, neighbors, or family who are 75 or older, be sure to check in on them when evacuation orders are in place to make sure they have a way to get to safety.

Disaster preparedness gray areas

Not all the numbers told a clear story. Two items we looked out stood out as being less obviously either a win or an area for improvement.

Generator ownership

Only about 22% of Americans have a generator; however, it’s hard to know whether that’s a problematically low number. Generators are less common among younger homeowners (only 8% of those 25 to 29 and 13% of those 30 to 34 have one), so it’s possible that this is somewhat self-selective: those who see a greater need for a generator are more likely to have one.

We’re inferring this in part because older Americans are more likely to have health-related reasons for investing in a generator, while younger homeowners may be more willing to wait out a power outage.

Evacuation funds

At first glance, the numbers for having adequate funds to evacuate in the event of a disaster seem strong: 86% of Americans have “up to $2,000” to evacuate a distance of 50 miles.

But the wording of that question leaves some room for doubt: “up to” $2,000 means a fund could be well under that figure. Still, the wording of the question suggests that most Americans are confident that they have enough cash on hand to get themselves to safety in the event of a disaster.

Disaster preparedness areas to improve

Now for the areas of disaster preparedness where we’re not doing as well. The good news for these is that they’re fairly easy to fix. And for the most part, doing so is also inexpensive. Let’s take a look.

Emergency communications plan

In the event that cell service goes down, only 26% of us – that’s about one in four – have a plan for getting in touch with our loved ones. And even among the most prepared age groups, only 30% have a plan.

So how can you make an emergency communication plan? Set aside an hour or so to write down contact information for members of your family and important outside parties (e.g., your doctor’s office). And remember that if cell service is spotty, a text is more likely to go through than a call, because the former uses less bandwidth.

Emergency meetup plan

Only 38% of American households with two or more people have an agreed-upon meetup location in the event of a disaster. As with the emergency communications plan, even the top-performing age groups aren’t cracking the 50% mark.

The good news is that deciding on a meetup spot is the kind of disaster preparedness you can do in just a few minutes of discussion. When you choose your location, be sure to take into account how easy it is to reach from where you and other members of your family are likely to be during the day.

Evacuation kit

Slightly more of us have evacuation kits than emergency meetup plans, which is great! Still, though, only slightly more than half of Americans (55%) have such a kit ready.

That number is fairly consistent across age groups, meaning close to half of us should put stocking an evacuation kit on our to-do lists. What should go in the kit? FEMA’s recommends including:

  • Water
  • Food
  • A flashlight
  • A radio and NOAA weather radio with tone alerts
  • A first-aid kit
  • Batteries
  • A whistle
  • Dust masks
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Duct tape
  • Moist towelettes
  • Garbage bags
  • Plastic ties
  • A wrench or pliers
  • A manual can opener
  • Local maps
  • A cell phone with chargers and a backup battery
  • Non-prescription health and wellness supplies (painkillers, contact solution, etc.)
  • Prescription medicines (though you’ll have to keep these up to date)
  • Cash
  • … and more.

Some of the items in an emergency kit need to be replaced to ensure they’ll work when you need them. If you haven’t already, add creating (or updating) your kit to your annual list of home maintenance chores to make sure you stay on top of it.

Flood insurance

Across age groups, only about 11% of homeowners have flood insurance. This is despite the fact that FEMA’s official position is that anywhere it can rain, it can flood.

While it’s true that only some homeowners are required by their mortgage lender to carry flood insurance, it’s also true that standard homeowners insurance does not include coverage for flood damage. In the event of a flood disaster, those without a dedicated flood policy will likely have to cover the cost of repairs out of pocket.

If you’re one of the 89% of Americans who don't have a flood insurance policy, read up on what it can do for you – especially if you live somewhere that gets heavy rain.

Setting yourself up for success

Nobody likes to think about what will happen in the event of a disaster. However, having a plan in place can make a major difference in how your life unfolds when the disaster is over. In some cases, it might even save your life, the lives of your loved ones, or the life of your pet.

And while your insurance policy can help you rebuild after a disaster strikes, nothing can replace a disaster preparedness plan for helping you weather the storm – whatever type it is.


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