After Katrina: Many Still Not Prepared

Hurricane survivors and health experts discuss whether Americans are prepared for the next big storm.

From the WebMD Archives

A year has passed since Hurricane Katrina – one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history – struck the gulf coast. But, as America heads into the peak of another hurricane season, there are signs not all that storm's lessons have been learned.

In the wake of Katrina's devastation, which put 80% of the city of New Orleans under water and claimed an estimated 1,400 lives, there was much talk of how America and the Americans in harm's way could have reacted better. Thousands of evacuees fanned out to distant cities, with other Americans watching their plight on TV screens and debating why some had waited so long to leave, and why basics like food and water took so long to reach those trapped after the flooding came.

To find some of the answers, WebMD spoke to Katrina survivors -- and preparedness experts – about how well Americans are prepared to handle the next big storm.

Ready to Evacuate?

A Red Cross survey in May showed that 60% of Americans have no specific evacuation plan. In 2005, 45% said they had a disaster supply kit. This has increased to a little over half now. But 73% have not practiced their family disaster plan and 69% have not set up a place for family to meet if a disaster strikes.


In the hurricane-prone areas, a Harvard study showed that only two-thirds would leave if told to.

Why? Some reasons given for all of these decisions include:

  • Can't afford to prepare, this stuff costs money
  • Waste of time
  • It won't happen to me
  • Hate the way the administration tries to stir up fear
  • My home is safer than going on the road
  • Won't leave my animals
  • My things would be stolen

View of a Katrina Evacuee

Michael Tisserand was the editor of an alternative paper in New Orleans. His wife is a pediatrician. They have two small children. When Katrina bore down on New Orleans, they left to stay with friends in Illinois. He has blogged his progress for WebMD.

He and his family found themselves living in the child's bedroom of a friend, with their three cats in the bathroom. "A friend who is a therapist," he writes, "suggested we were all learning Zen and how to live in the moment. I wouldn't put it that way. I'd say we were just learning how to beat our heads against the wall and keep on going."


Tisserand tells WebMD he has many days when he wishes to go back to New Orleans, but his wife has set up a new practice and does not feel that way.

He is wistful and cannot imagine living in a place that does not celebrate Mardi Gras, his favorite holiday.

Having gone through all this, is Tisserand now hyper about disaster with a pantry of water, first aid kits, and supplies?

He seemed surprised at the question. "We have our cellphones," he muses, although we know those may not work. He says his in-laws, the older generation, do have food supplies on hand. They went through the Depression, he adds.

A Psychologist's Perspective

"It is very important for local, state, and national government, as well as individuals, to prepare with adequate supplies," David Sattler, PhD, professor of psychology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., tells WebMD.

"We have learned that when tens or hundreds of thousands of people lose these necessities -- home, food, and water -- it is an immense task to provide this in a prompt way. If you do not have this on hand, you will experience great stress and are more likely to have mental healthmental health issues after the crisis has passed."


Many people, he says, just cannot imagine what their needs will be or what their community will be like if the infrastructure is destroyed. They can see it on TV happening to others, but cannot imagine it for themselves.

He emphasizes that staying in a disaster zone can create lasting mental health problems. "People who stay are more likely to have posttraumatic stress syndrome," he says. "We have shown that. Hearing the wind, seeing roofs blow off, or cars slam into things is terrifying. You should leave just to avoid exposure to terror. This is not good for you."

Sattler has studied behavior in many hurricanes, going back to the 1980s. The key, he says, is what psychologists call "locus of control." If your locus of control comes from outside -- fate, luck -- then you are less likely to prepare or even leave.

If your locus of contol is inside you and you believe you have control over what happens, you are more likely to prepare for a disaster.

"Some people feel it's God's will or what we humans do cannot influence outcomes," Sattler says. "They are less likely to prepare."

Tips From a Hurricane Survivor

Nancy Paull is a health literacy consultant living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. During Hurricane Wilma, her high-rise on the beach went dark for three days. The tenants, many of them elderly, made their way down to ground level for a barbeque that used all the tenants' frozen food. She couldn't use her computer, couldn't use her cell phone (for fear of it running down), and sort of huddled in her apartment. She is a self-described night owl and had to go to bed every night at 7:00 p.m. when the light faded.

"I have a book light now," she tells WebMD. "A battery-powered fan, and water, although probably not enough of it."

She said they had water to flush toilets, but might not have that next time. She knows now she will need water to wash up. "You feel grungy," she comments. "I felt like some kind of pioneer."

As hurricane season approaches, Paull now has a battery TV with "a ton" of batteries. "I want my news!" she exclaims. A big flashlight has been added. She also has peanut butter, frozen bread, tuna in a pouch, and other staples.


She wants some way to cook without having propane in her apartment and is working on that.

Some tips she learned the hard way:

  • In a power outage, don't open the fridge a lot. It lets out the cold.
  • Don't overshop. If you have a lot in the fridge, you can lose a lot.
  • Have some way to make coffee.
  • Cover glass. In her case, the building had metal shutters that could be put up, but many went flying and damaged things on the ground.
  • When you do get out and to the store, don't get your hopes up.

Evacuation Lessons

Sattler studied people's behavior in Charleston, S.C., over many years. Hugo, a category 4 hurricane, had come through in 1989. He went on the streets in 1993, while the city was under alert for Emily, a bad one on the way, and asked people to talk about their experiences and losses with Hugo. Then he asked what they were doing about Emily, which was hours away.


"I found that older and more highly educated people were more likely to have made preparations," he says.

Emily veered and did not hit Charleston. So, three years later, when Fran was bearing down, he went back out on the streets. No one referenced Hugo and since Emily had not hit, people seemed pretty unconcerned.

Three years after that, Hurricane Floyd was on the way. Officials called for an evacuation and over 70% evacuated. But Floyd missed.

Still, Sattler found that less than half of the people he surveyed even knew the difference between a hurricane watch (24-36 hours to prepare) and a hurricane alert (less than 24 hours). If you are now inspired to learn the difference, check out National Hurricane Center at

That site also contains advice about preparing. Sattler, for his part, says government sites differ greatly on what they recommend. He recommends getting supplies to last two weeks.

"There is not much we can do ahead of time about damage to property," Norris Beren, executive director of the Emergency Preparedness Institute, an organization that trains businesses to cope with disaster, tells WebMD. "But we can be prepared for how we react.


"There is too much dependence on government," he adds. "Your safety is your responsibility."

Beren recommends planning for disaster just as you would for Christmas or Easter. It starts with a family conversation, children included. What do you think could happen? What would we do? Have food and water on hand. Put important papers in a duffle bag and keep it handy. Keep cash on hand. Have a meeting place. Buy a first aid kit. Get flashlights.

Beren boils it down to the acronym MAP: Materials, Action, Plan.

There are plenty of places to get information on what to stockpile and how to plan. All it takes is the get-up-and-go to make preparations.

WebMD Feature


Published Aug. 22, 2006.

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.

SOURCES: David Sattler, PhD, professor of psychology, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wash. Norris Beren, executive director, Emergency Preparedness Institute. Michael Tisserand, Nancy B. Paull, health literacy consultant, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Red Cross web site. WebMD Medical News: "Hurricane Evacuation: 1/3 Might Not Go." Newhouse News Service web site: "'Not-My-Problem' Mind-set Hampers Disaster Readiness."

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