- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Howling winds and lashing rain seem more dangerous to Americans than dirty bombs and al Qaeda, according to a Harris poll released Tuesday that examines public sentiment of natural or man-made disasters. Although personal confidence in handling calamities seems intact, trust in the federal government is downright shaky.

What tops the danger meter?

Hurricanes were ranked the most destructive disaster by 72 percent of respondents, followed by earthquakes and tornadoes, each cited by 53 percent, and terrorism, cited by 43 percent.

Floods (37 percent), wildfires (19 percent) and drought (16 percent) followed. But Americans don’t seem particularly concerned by sloppy soil and blizzards. Mudslides were cited as destructive by only 5 percent, and ice or snowstorms by 3 percent.

The danger factor varies by region. Folks in the Midwest most often cited terrorism as the most destructive act, while those in the South find it the least harmful. Southerners were more likely than respondents from other regions to say hurricanes and tornadoes are more destructive. Oddly, more Easterners than Westerners say earthquakes are the most destructive.

Some disasters are taken more personally than others. When asked which calamity most directly affected them, Midwestern and Southern respondents named tornadoes. It was snow and ice for Easterners and earthquakes out West.

Bad memories of slow government response after Hurricane Katrina may linger.

When asked whether the federal government was prepared to deal with the nine types of disasters, almost half — 47 percent — said agencies would not be able to cope with any of them. Only a quarter said the government could cope with a terrorist attack, while 20 percent said it could respond to a wildfire. The numbers go downhill from there: Only 2 percent said the government could deal with a mudslide.

“As June approaches and we await Hurricane Alberto or Tropical Storm Beryl, it will be interesting to see if people are right about the federal government’s ability to handle these disasters,” the poll’s analysts said.

It may start with better outreach. A Temple University study conducted after the destructive hurricanes last year found that “poor communications” generated chaos, distress and alarm. The university is drafting an emergency response guide for officials.

Americans are reasonably ready to handle disasters on their own.

The poll found that 81 percent said they were prepared to handle a snowstorm, while less than half said they could deal with a tornado or drought. About 42 percent were prepared for a flood, 38 percent for a wildfire, 35 percent for a hurricane and 29 percent for an earthquake. Just 28 percent were ready for a terrorist attack and 21 percent for a mudslide.

The poll of 3,979 adults was conducted online April 12 to 20 and had a margin of error of two percentage points.

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