Thursday, August 22, 2019

Who's Afraid of a Natural Disaster?

Do Americans underestimate their risk of being affected by a flood or other natural disaster? Yes, according to results of the American Housing Survey.

Among the nation's householders, only 9 million—or 8 percent—agree that their neighborhood is at high risk of a natural disaster, according to the 2017 survey. With 2.53 people in the average household, that's only 23 million people who are willing to acknowledge that they live in a high-risk area—7 percent of the population.

But a much larger 60 million people—18 percent of the population—live just in the coastal counties of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. These counties are deemed at high risk for hurricanes, according to the Census Bureau. In addition to those 60 million, there are many millions more who live in areas at high risk of wildfires, earthquakes, and tornadoes. Yes, Americans greatly underestimate their risk of a natural disaster. This might explain why, in the aftermath of a natural disaster, so many households lack the appropriate insurance.

In California, which is prone to earthquakes, only 9 percent of households agree that they are at high risk for natural disasters. Texans are a bit more worried, with 11 percent agreeing they are at high risk. In Florida, where hurricanes often strike, 14 percent of households acknowledge the risk. Among metropolitan areas included in the 2017 survey, the percentage of householders who think they are at high risk of a natural disaster ranges from a high of 20 percent in Houston and 17 percent in Miami to a low of 2 percent in Washington, D.C.

People who have recently experienced a natural disaster are more likely to acknowledge risk, while those living in areas where a natural disaster occurred in the distant past are often in denial. Among households in New Orleans, interviewed in the 2015 American Housing Survey, fully 31 percent agreed that their neighborhood was at high risk of a natural disaster. But in San Francisco, only 11 percent of households thought their risk of a natural disaster was high. After all, 1906 was a long time ago.

Source: Demo Memo analysis of the Census Bureau's American Housing Survey

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