Thursday, October 28, 2004

Poll Finds Most Americans Have Not Prepared for a Terror Attack

The New York Times
October 28, 2004

Poll Finds Most Americans Have Not Prepared for a Terror Attack

Americans are closely divided on whether they think the United States is prepared to deal with another terrorist attack, but the overwhelming majority have done nothing to prepare for such an attack themselves, according to a recent New York Times poll.

The poll found that most Americans are not worried that they or a family member will become a victim of terrorism, with the majority of the respondents saying they do nothing different even when the government raises the terror-alert level.

The survey was conducted for use in a documentary produced by New York Times Television on the status of security in the United States.

While domestic security has been a major issue in the presidential campaign with Republicans and Democrats warning that another terrorist attack is inevitable, the Times poll suggests that for most Americans the issue is not a preoccupation.

"I guess the reason I'm not terribly worried about it is probably the location I'm in," Angela Loston, 24, a writer from Dallas, said in a phone interview after the survey. "Even though I'm in a major city, I am in the state of Texas, so I don't really see something happening here."

David Ropeik, who teaches risk communications at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the survey results reflect a well-established, intuitive human response to risk known as optimism bias, in which individuals disproportionately believe that they will not be victims of a peril even though they widely acknowledge that it will occur.

"We see the same phenomenon with smoking, obesity and natural disasters. If you don't think it will happen to you, then you won't take any precautions," Mr. Ropeik said. "When it comes to terrorism, there is some truth here. If an attack happens, it's unlikely that you or I will be a victim. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be prepared."

In the survey, 46 percent of the respondents said they did not think the United States was prepared for a terrorist attack, while 43 percent said the country was prepared. To questions of personal readiness, 61 percent responded that they did not have a stockpile of food and water at home in preparation for a terrorist attack. More than 70 percent said they had not selected a family meeting place in case of an evacuation due to terrorism, nor had they established a plan to communicate with relatives.

Asked why her family had not designated a gathering place or plan to stay in touch, Gloria Peters, a retiree from San Pablo, Calif., said, "We really haven't discussed that, but we should." She added, "The roads are going to be so packed jammed that it's going to be insane."

The survey found that women were more likely to regard both the country and their local communities as ill prepared to deal with another attack. Women are also more apt to express concern that someone in their family could become a victim of terrorism: 46 percent of women said they were very or somewhat concerned compared with 26 percent of men.

The Times poll, of 554 adults, was conducted nationwide by telephone Oct. 12 to 13 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Citing the federal government's handling of the current flu vaccine shortage, Eugene Ladisky, a retired engineer from New York, said: "I get the impression that were there a terrorist attack, our government would let us fend for ourselves."