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Are Californians unprepared for the next disaster?

Californians are no strangers to the dangers of natural disasters. From earthquakes to wildfires, the state has born the brunt of 32 natural catastrophes in the past 15 years. It has been costly, both in terms of lives lost and property damage, totaling more than $19 billion.

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Yet a new poll reveals that most Californians say they are unprepared for a disaster.

"Californians are conflicted about disaster preparation. They recognize risk, but they often assume it will happen to someone else," said Candysse Miller, executive director with the Insurance Information Network of California. IINC and Novato, Calif.-based Fireman� Fund Insurance Co. sponsored the poll, which found that nearly four out of five Californians are not prepared for a catastrophe, but many believe it is very likely a disaster will strike their area in the next five years.

Californians’ fears about natural disasters vary by region and by the kind of disaster. For example, nearly half of San Diego area residents said they could handle a wildfire. In contrast, Bay Area residents were not as confident about their wildfire preparedness. However, 44 percent of Bay Area respondents said they were best prepared for earthquakes.

The poll also revealed that a majority of households feel that preparedness should be a personal responsibility and that the government could not be counted on to bail them out financially after a catastrophe.

"It's up to each individual to be conscious of what's going on around them, not be ostriches and put their heads in the sand,” said a 61-year-old Sacramento County woman who participated in the poll.

Still, Californians believe the government should play a role in disaster preparation and recovery.

That is the primary function of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, which works with local agencies to establish emergency plans and assists with educational outreach to the public.

In 2005 OES launched a disaster preparedness campaign with First Lady Maria Shriver. Since then, more than one million brochures featuring OES's top ten preparedness actions for individuals have been distributed statewide. Those steps include:

  • Identify your risk
  • Create a family disaster plan
  • Practice the disaster plan
  • Build a disaster supply kit for your home and car
  • Prepare your children
  • Remember those with special needs
  • Learn CPR and First Aid
  • Eliminate hazards in the home and workplace
  • Understand post 9/11 risks
  • Get involved and volunteer

OES spokeswoman Tina Walker says it is critical for individuals to be prepared because they may have to be self-reliant for 72 hours or more following a disaster. That's the amount of time agencies are expected to take to ramp up services in an impacted area.

"I think too many people expect the government or their insurance company to bail them out, so they don't take adequate preparation up front,” said a Yolo County resident in the poll, which found that only 20 percent of respondents believe government financial assistance would see them through disaster recovery compared to 68 percent of respondents who expect the insurance industry to help home and business owners rebuild after a disaster.

Since 1990, insurers have paid out more than $25 million on claims resulting from natural catastrophes in California. One of the most recent catastrophic disasters occurred three years ago when wildfires in San Diego County destroyed nearly 2,500 homes. Yet one San Diego area resident told the pollsters she lives in a "disaster-free zone.”

"Clearly, it is critical for us as an industry to find ways to encourage consumers to get better prepared for natural disasters--both physically and financially,” said Chris Heidrick, vice president of personal insurance with Fireman's Fund.

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