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Too Few Americans in Disaster-Prone States Have Secured Medicine Supplies for Evacuation


Extreme Weather

Many in the U.S. rely on multiple medications to manage chronic conditions and maintain their health. Access to medications is often interrupted during disasters, and can force people into the emergency room. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

From the wildfires that have burned through California subdivisions to the hurricanes that have drowned cities and towns in Florida, Louisiana and Texas, natural disasters are forcing millions of Americans to evacuate their homes each year. In 2022 alone, 3.4 million Americans had to flee their homes because of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters, according to the Census Bureau.

Too often, they find themselves without the chronic disease medicines they need to stay healthy or even to stay alive. Too few are prepared with evacuation plans or copies of medical records they will need if suddenly forced to flee.

A survey of more than 3,300 people in hurricane- and wildfire-prone states conducted for Direct Relief by Atomik Research has found how unprepared many residents of disaster-affected states are. Among those surveyed:

• Two in five (41%) of people said they would have enough medication on hand for only seven days or less if they had to evacuate right now
• Nearly half (47%) of people in at-risk areas say they don’t have a digital backup copy of their medical documents in case they lose access during an emergency.
• 77% of people living in these states express worry about their health if they did not have their medications during an emergency.

Widespread chronic conditions like diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease can lead to medical crisis or even death when people lose access to maintenance medications in a disaster. The United States has 7.4 million adults taking insulin, and millions more taking medicine for hypertension, heart disease, mental health conditions and other chronic health ailments.

“People don’t think about the most basic of life’s necessities until they’re gone,” said Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe.

Substantial Minority of People Unprepared or Unwilling to Evacuate

Mexico Beach, Florida, was demolished by Hurricane Michael’s impact on the Florida panhandle in 2018. (Zack Wittman/Direct Relief)

43% of people in wildfire-prone states said they would not know where to go if forced to evacuate their homes, along with 35% of people in hurricane-vulnerable states.

In wildfire-prone states, 26% said they would definitely or probably ignore evacuation warnings and stay to fight off a wildfire to protect their homes or possessions, while in hurricane-prone states nearly 1 in 3 (32%) said they would definitely or probably ignore such warnings.

Information about the dangers of wildfire smoke appears to have penetrated the population: in wildfire-prone states, 76% are concerned about risks to their health associated with smoke exposure during wildfires.

The most often reported concerns about disasters in hurricane-prone areas are loss of electricity (50%), loss of home (50%) and a loss of life (48%). In wildfire-prone areas, the top concerns were loss of home (54%), loss of life (50%) and loss of electricity (48%).

Disaster-Related Blackouts Become Common

Line workers attempt to bring back electricity to Panama City, Florida, in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in 2018. Power is often interrupted during disasters, creating health issues around medication storage, electricity-powered devices like ventilators and more. (Zack Wittman/Direct Relief)

Half of those surveyed (51%) said they had experienced a blackout due to a weather event within the last 12 months, including 54% in hurricane states and 47% in wildfire states. 61% of people in hurricane states say they are not at all prepared to live or are prepared to live for fewer than five days without power.

Despite their exposure to blackout risk, only 1 in 3 people living in hurricane-prone areas report having a backup plan in the event of losing power.

Methodology: Direct Relief commissioned Atomik Research to conduct an online survey of 3,334 Americans across states prone to wildfires and hurricanes. Participants resided in states including Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. A total of around 200 participants completed the questionnaire in each state, and 100 participants completed the questionnaire in Puerto Rico. The margin of error for the sample is +/- 2 percentage points with a confidence interval of 95 percent. Fieldwork took place between May 26 and June 5, 2023.

Direct Relief is pre-positioning emergency medical supplies in every southeastern and Gulf Coast U.S. state from Virginia to Texas, as well as throughout the Caribbean and Central America. The caches, called hurricane prep packs, or HPPs, contain the medical items most commonly needed in the wake of a disaster, including trauma supplies, antibiotics and wound care supplies, as well as medications for diabetes, hypertension, and respiratory, psychological and gastrointestinal ailments.

Direct Relief responds to wildfires each year during fire season, including those that impact the Western United States. The organization maintains a stockpile of N95 masks at its California warehouse for distribution and manages an inventory of critical medicines often requested during fires, including medications for asthma and chronic diseases often requested when people are forced to evacuate.

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