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Public grows dubious about storm evacuations

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Americans are digging in. Should another Katrina hit, an increasing number of people would refuse evacuation, according to a Harvard University study released yesterday.

"Public officials need to be concerned that the further we get from the severe hurricanes of 2005, the less willing people are to evacuate," said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Memories of Hurricane Katrina and the killer storm Rita that struck Louisiana and Texas just weeks later are still fresh and appear to have grown in intensity. People have come to fear crowded roads, unsanitary shelters and the prospect of abandoning their pets, all subjects of intense press coverage in the aftermath of the storms.

The study surveyed 5,046 adults in eight high-risk states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas — to find that a third of the respondents would not budge from their homes should a major hurricane hit. The figure was up from 23 percent last year.

Three-quarters were convinced that their homes were built well enough to withstand violent winds and flooding, while more than half were leery of getting stuck on a crowded escape route. One out of three were convinced their possessions would be stolen or damaged if they left home and that evacuating was more dangerous than the hurricane itself. About 27 percent would refuse to evacuate because they wouldn't leave pets behind.

That sentiment in particular was brought home by news reports rife with images of starving animals and poignant reunions. Few have forgotten live shots of an overcrowded and practically uninhabitable Louisiana Superdome, which served as an emergency center in New Orleans when Katrina struck in August 2005.

The survey revealed that seven out of 10 were convinced that an evacuation shelter would be unsanitary, crowded and without drinking water. About 62 percent feared they would be exposed to "sick people" or have no access to medical care.

Mr. Blendon says a reality check is due.

"Officials need to remind people that many homes are vulnerable to major storms," he said. "They also need to ensure safe evacuation routes are available and the public is aware of them."

Indeed, the study revealed that most folks simply aren't prepared.

Half of the survey respondents live in communities recently damaged by hurricanes. Still, two-thirds did not have a family emergency plan, a quarter would run out of drinking water in two days and half would run out of food in less than a week. One out of three did not know whether they were in an evacuation zone. Thirty-nine percent did not know the locations of emergency centers. Many reported running out of gas and money during previous storms.

Of the 502 New Orleans residents in the study, only 14 percent said they would refuse to be evacuated. More than half said they were confident they would be rescued, "despite the dramatic images of people stranded during Katrina," the study noted.

The survey was conducted June 18 to July 10 and had a margin of error of three percentage points.

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