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Family Disaster Preparedness—Revisited

Timothy O'Brien | February 8, 2013

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Emergency disaster plan

Years ago, before a boxing match, then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was informed by a sports reporter that his next opponent sounded certain he had a good plan on how to beat Tyson. Revealing a keen insight gained from many fights, Tyson replied "Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the face." Superstorm Sandy has served as just that—a "punch in the face"—for those of us who live and work in the New York metropolitan area. At least some of us had well-thought-out disaster management plans, or so we thought. The reality of what ensued, however, exposed the flaws in most plans. What have we learned? What new lessons on disaster preparedness can we impart to consumers? Why does it seem that, for anyone to have a really sound plan, one must first get punched in the face? This article seeks to address those issues and more.

In my last article, "Personal Risk Management Services: More Than Just Insurance," I provided an overview of the wide range of risk management services available from a select group of insurers, many of them designed to help consumers better prepare for natural disasters. Superstorm Sandy has helped to reinforce the critical importance of changing our conversations with those we serve to better emphasize topics such as loss avoidance and disaster preparedness.

To more directly integrate disaster preparedness into our conversations, I encourage all readers to first refer to this article written almost 10 years ago by Robin Olson, "Family Disaster Planning—Ten Key Ingredients," and still available on this site. There, you will read about ways to develop a comprehensive family disaster plan. After rereading this article, I have come to realize I have not been consistently active in highlighting the importance of disaster preparedness among the professional advisers and families I serve. This article is still relevant and provides us with a great framework of preparedness practices on which to build.

As we know all too well, however, motivating others who have never been impacted by a disaster to fully engage in planning for a possible future disaster is no easy task. To understand the challenges in doing so, let's start by examining consumer attitudes about preparing for disasters, as documented by the following insights captured from two recent surveys.

Survey Results: Preparedness Plans Lack Urgency and Substance

Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported 99 major disaster declarations in 2011, the most mega catastrophes declared since 1953, survey results consistently reveal that few in our country are well prepared for the next natural disaster. We begin with these survey results, as reported by Claims Journal, August 2012.

  • Twenty-seven percent of Americans say they would ignore evacuation orders and wait until absolutely necessary before leaving their home or seeking shelter in the event of an imminent natural disaster.
  • Twenty-one percent of Americans have had their homes damaged by natural disasters.
  • Forty-six percent say they have not thought about or even discussed an evacuation plan or meeting place away from the home for their family.
  • Sixty-two percent also say they have not prepared an emergency kit.
  • Fifty-six percent of home owners and renters say they have not made a home inventory list of their personal belongings.

These findings from the "2012 Public Safety Survey" are similarly startling the following.

  • Fifty-six percent believe they are aware of the steps they should take if disaster strikes, but the specific results show a much different reality.
  • Seventy-one percent are unsure whether they have a personal alerting and notification system (ANS) in their area. (ANS provides alert options such as calls, texts, and email alerts.)
  • Fifty-seven percent are unaware of when local warning sirens are tested.
  • Seventy percent are unaware of the sounds and sirens associated with various warnings. In fact, the article says, more than one in four respondents did not know whether their community had a warning siren system at all. In fact, the article says, more than one in four respondents did not know whether their community had a warning siren system at all.
  • Forty-seven percent would take action based on a potential severe weather warning.
  • Thirty-three percent would require actual property damage or injury in order to care strongly about public safety awareness.
  • Twenty-eight percent would require confirmation of severe weather, such as an actual tornado sighting, flood waters, or a visible fire before taking immediate action.
  • One in 12 people said that nothing would cause him or her to care.
  • Fifty-eight percent trust local and regional government to ensure sufficient public safety standards, communication, and planning in their area.

To Facilitate Real Change, Start with "Who"

A quick Internet search for "disaster preparedness" will quickly reveal there is no shortage of information and resources to help consumers become better prepared for the next disaster. In reviewing the information and resources that are readily available, it is apparent that governmental agencies are leading the effort to educate and motivate citizens, with quality assistance from several prominent nonprofit agencies. While the insurance industry is surely active in the discussion, our collective efforts are dwarfed by governmental agencies and various nonprofits. Those employed in the insurance industry, especially those in roles directly interacting with consumers, should recognize that we are ideally positioned in our local communities to become preparedness advocacy leaders. Those who are in federal, state, and even local government simply do not have the same opportunities we have each year to initiate a meaningful and strategic preparedness discussion with those in our communities.

Additionally, we should ask those we serve whether it is wise for them to expect the government to prevent the next disaster, or even restore their family's lives to normalcy afterward. Our industry needs to assert a leadership role in helping our fellow citizens become better prepared for the wide range of disasters that are happening around us to minimize future losses.

Becoming Prepared: What and How

Just as there is no one industry currently accountable for leading this discussion, it is my experience that, in most families, there is no one person who has agreed to be accountable for that family's disaster preparedness planning. If we are to ever help families progress from knowing they need to be better prepared to actually becoming better prepared, we should start by encouraging families to designate one member to be accountable for developing the family's preparedness plan. After all, if no one in the family is personally accountable to prepare the family, is there even a chance family members will be prepared when the next disaster occurs?

Once you know who will be accountable, it is necessary to help them understand what they should prepare for and provide them with basic guidance and resources on how to do so. Again, equipping families with the 10 key ingredients in Robin Olson's article provides a very good starting point. Next, consider adjusting and expanding your conversation to more precisely address those risks that present the greatest threat to each client. The following suggestions and available resources can be helpful in doing so.

  • KnowYourPlan from the Insurance Information Institute (III) is a great free app that offers disaster preparedness for iPhones, tablets, and computers.
  • Document what you own. Either develop a written inventory or use your cell phone to take video or pictures. Why not provide this free software, also from III?
  • Check local/state government websites that identify local resources. New York, for example, provides this great 16-page document, My Emergency Plan, in seven languages along with an audio version.
  • Need an example of your federal tax dollars hard at work? Check this great website from FEMA with guidance on how to prepare for 14 different types of natural disasters.
  • Not to be outdone, the Office of Homeland Security offers links to help with addressing these tasks: Disaster Kit Contents, Family Communication Planning, Family Emergency Plan, School Emergency Plan, Workplace Plans, and Warning Systems and Signals.
  • Homeland Security is also the go-to resource to help us prepare for terrorism threats and technological accidents and hazards.
  • Finally, remember that most natural disasters disrupt electrical service. Owning a generator, whether portable or professionally installed, is the only way to avoid living with no electricity for an extended period. Buy one in advance, learn how to use it before the outage, and keep it operational.

Planning for Other Disasters

Consider for a moment how remarkably broad the word "disaster" is. When discussing the need to prepare for a disaster, the focus is almost always on preparing for natural disasters. What about other events that can be truly disastrous, though not of the natural kind? Consider the following topics as a starting point to add to your discussions on preparing for the unexpected.

Many home owners, for example, are unsure where to locate the water and gas main supply lines that enter their homes. Simply reminding home owners of the importance of knowing where the shutoff valves are to their water and gas mains may help to prevent a future disaster.

Many families who install traditional burglar alarm systems hoping to keep out intruders fail to realize that such systems only notify them once someone has actually entered their home. Encourage those who are truly concerned about preventing home invasions to consult an independent home security professional who can offer highly customized solutions, including perimeter security alarms that warn of movement around the home.

What could be more disastrous than a bad accident involving a child who was driving while distracted by his or her mobile phone? Why not also ask families what they are doing to ensure that their family members are not texting or emailing while driving? There are devices available to help prevent this risk, including this one from Cell Control.

Many families feel responsible for elderly members living by themselves, often far away. What steps are being taken to protect their safety and their finances from those who might deceive them? Help families who seek to avoid these possible disasters by providing them with access to specialized products and service providers well suited to manage those risks. Check the wide range of services provided by national organizations, such as Senior Bridge.

Ask anyone who has had his or her data or identity stolen whether he or she regarded it as disastrous. It is surprising how vulnerable our data is to even teenage hackers, often because of the low level of precautions we take.

Finally, although the risk of a possible prolonged unemployment is not one we are used to discussing with families, certainly this risk can be disastrous to any family's finances. While the significant limitations of public unemployment assistance are well known, few people are aware the opportunity exists to secure private placement unemployment insurance protection. This link provides the FAQs on this fairly new program from Income Assure that is worth considering.


These are just one person's thoughts on the importance of changing the personal risk management conversations we have with consumers to also include the importance of preparing for disasters before they occur. Though there are numerous products and services available to help consumers better prepare for a wide range of risks, we need to become far more vigilant in reminding consumers of the prophetic words of ex-heavyweight champ Mike Tyson. If those words do not resonate, try this somewhat less pithy but more urbane offering from John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men: "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry."

Do you have some good ideas on how to help others prepare for the next disaster, natural or otherwise? Please contribute them for others to review on IRMI's Personal Lines Insurance Forum.

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