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USA: Many unprepared for disaster

By Brad Heath, USA TODAY

Many Americans haven't taken basic steps to prepare for a natural disaster and have little confidence the federal government is ready to help them if one strikes.

The findings come as the nation braces for a summer that government forecasts predict could bring a worse-than-normal onslaught of hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. The first named storm of the year formed Wednesday off the Atlantic coast as fires burned from Florida to Los Angeles and President Bush toured a Kansas town flattened by a tornado.

When it comes to preparing for such disasters, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll found 41% of people don't have a stockpile of food and water, and 27% don't have an extra supply of medicines, both of which the Federal Emergency Management Agency says are basic disaster preparations. About 40% haven't picked a person for their family to contact in the event of a disaster and 18% don't have a first aid kit.

When people aren't prepared, it puts an extra strain on emergency managers across the country, forcing them to deliver food, ice, water and other supplies to people who could have stored their own, FEMA Administrator David Paulison says. "That puts an unbearable stress on the system," he says.

In Miami, a hurricane hotspot, that means emergency crews now face demands to have shipments of bottled water ready within hours of a hurricane — even when the tap water is still safe to drink, says Robert Palestrant, director of Miami-Dade County's Office of Emergency Management.

"We probably need to step back to where we were a few years ago and depend more on ourselves and less on the government." he says. "People have this expectation that my power's out, so somebody should give me cold water."

The main reason people don't prepare is that they don't think they're at risk, says American Red Cross spokeswoman Greta Petrilla.

If people expect the government to save them, they don't think it will actually be able to do so. The USA TODAY/Gallup poll, conducted last month, found about two-thirds of Americans don't think the federal government is ready to deal with a natural disaster in their neighborhoods; about two-thirds think their local police and fire departments are ready.

In New Orleans, still grappling with Katrina's aftermath, only 9% think Washington is "very prepared" for another disaster, according to a survey to be released today by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation. About 53% said they and their families are ready.

FEMA told Congress last month that it won't finish a new disaster plan for the country in time for the June 1 start of hurricane season.

Paulison says FEMA is ready. He blames the agency's response to Katrina for the lack of public confidence and says it will have to earn that trust back with how it responds to future disasters.

"I don't know if people are going to believe what I tell them, and maybe they shouldn't. But the proof's going to be in the pudding," he says.

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