“It can’t happen to me” – A tale of two FEMA studies, statistics and Normalcy Bias

My notes from the early hours this morning:

2012 FEMA study – Almost 1/2 of all Americans don’t believe that a disaster will hurt their community.

2015 FEMA study – Less than 1/2 of American households had an Emergency Preparedness plan or discussed one with their family.

I remember thinking “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, honey.”

But denial is also not normalcy bias. Normalcy bias aka Ostrich Effect is a cognitive bias that occurs when people facing imminent disaster are warned and either disbelieve the warning or minimize the threat.

We need to know about and factor in denial and normalcy bias into our preparedness, for ourselves and family members.

The time it takes to process denial and normalcy bias can put people in grave danger. I believe part of the solution is to be aware of the potential for a problem and formulate how you will deal with it before it happens.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normalcy_bias#:~:text=Normalcy%20bias%2C%20or%20normality%20bias,and%20its%20potential%20adverse%20effects.

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The normalcy bias may be caused in part by the way the brain processes new data. Research suggests that even when the brain is calm, it takes 8–10 seconds to process new information. Stress slows the process, and when the brain cannot find an acceptable response to a situation, it fixates on a single and sometimes default solution that may or may not be correct. An evolutionary reason for this response could be that paralysis gives an animal a better chance of surviving an attack and predators are less likely to see prey that is not moving.”[10]


About 70% of people reportedly display normalcy bias in disasters.[3] Normalcy bias has been described as “one of the most dangerous biases we have”. The lack of preparation for disasters often leads to inadequate shelter, supplies, and evacuation plans. Even when all these things are in place, individuals with a normalcy bias often refuse to leave their homes.[17][better source needed]”

Normalcy bias can cause people to drastically underestimate the effects of the disaster. Therefore, people think that they will be safe even though information from the radio, television, or neighbors gives them reasons to believe there is a risk. The normalcy bias creates a cognitive dissonance that people then must work to eliminate. Some manage to eliminate it by refusing to believe new warnings coming in and refusing to evacuate (maintaining the normalcy bias), while others eliminate the dissonance by escaping the danger. The possibility that some people may refuse to evacuate causes significant problems in disaster planning.[18]

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https://community.fema.gov/story/2020-NHS-Data-Digest-Summary-Results What the data indicates:

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The percentage of the adult population that have no intent to prepare (stage 1) has decreased substantially since 2013 (21% in 2013 to 9% in 2020).The percentage of the adult population that is not prepared but understands the importance of preparing and intends to do so within the next year (stages 2 and 3) has increased by 12 percentage points since 2013 (28% in 2013 to 40% in 2020) supporting the notion that there is an increased social awareness of the importance of preparing.”

“The percentage of the population that perceives themselves as prepared (stages 4 and 5) increased only slightly from 2013 (49% in 2013 to 51% in 2020), implying that the rate at which the adult population becomes prepared or maintains preparedness has stalled over the years, despite any year to year (e.g., 2020 versus 2019) fluctuations. This suggests a critical need to encourage, guide, and assist individuals and communities progress from intent-to-prepare to engagement in preparedness action and activities.”

And from same data:

“Overall, the estimated number of preparedness actions taken has increased from 2019.

68% of NHS respondents have taken 3 or more of the 6 basic preparedness actions; an increase of 6% from 2019.

For the second year in a row, the percentage of people reporting four of the six basic actions increased.

The number of people who indicated that they talked to others about getting prepared increased from 45% to 48%.

The number of people who indicated they participated in an emergency drill increased from 49% to 56%.”

NHS data shows that, when individuals indicate that they’ve taken one preparedness action, we can expect that they will take additional preparedness actions.

NHS data shows that preparedness actions can vary by stage of preparedness, hazard areas, and even demographics. As such, customizing preparedness messaging based on these factors will likely result in more effective messaging.

End Quote    https://www.aicpa.org/press/pressreleases/2020/few-americans-are-prepared-for-natural-disaster.html#:~:text=The%20good%20news%20is%20nearly,in%20a%20safe%20place%20(31

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The good news is nearly three-quarters of Americans (73 percent) have taken at least one step to prepare for a natural disaster, most commonly assembling a disaster supplies kit (34 percent), creating an evacuation plan (32 percent), or backing up and storing personal medical and financial records in a safe place (31 percent). The bad news is only 15 percent have created a disaster plan to protect their finances. And concerningly, a little more than a quarter of Americans (27 percent) have not taken any steps at all to prepare for a natural disaster.

Steps Americans Have Taken to Prepare for Natural Disaster

34% Assembled a disaster supplies kit (first-aid kit, food, water, tools, etc.)

32% Created an evacuation plan

31% Backed up & stored personal, medical & financial records in a safe,          accessible place

27% Evaluated insurance needs to assure adequate coverage

26% Taken an inventory of assets & possessions for insurance purposes

24% Contributed to an emergency saving account

19% Created or updated an estate plan and/or will

19% Purchased additional insurance (e.g., flood insurance, hurricane          insurance, etc.)

15% Created a disaster plan to protect finances

2%  Other

27% I have not taken any steps to prepare for a natural disaster

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After I finished wading through the articles, I wondered how can we help others understand the need for emergency preparedness without jeopardizing our own preparedness? Is there a way to do improve these numbers?


  • Comments (5)

    • 2

      Gideon, The title didn’t transfer properly. The last word should read “bias.”

      Also, if you think the title could be better, please go ahead. I had a heck of a time figuring out a title for this one.

      Many thanks.

      • 2

        I’ve gone and added the ‘s’ to the end of your title for you. In the future, if you have a change to the title or main body of your topic, you can click the little three dots at the end of your main topic and click Edit. Glad to help though 🙂

        Screenshot from 2021-04-06 11-45-15

        As for a title, it is hard to come up with good ones. I struggle to have good titles for my own articles but seem to be better at it for others. In this case, I think yours is good and tells accurately what the topic will be about. Another suggestion could be something like “Will you fall victim to the normalcy bias when a disaster hits?”  Feel free to keep your current title if you want or you can use that edit button and steal mine if you want. 


        To comment on your topic, it was a well researched topic with good stats and information. I liked your Nile River joke! haha

        I’m glad to see that I am part of many of the stats near the end of the topic, estate planning, backup of medical records, have insurance and an emergency fund, etc… To me these just seem like basics for an adult, it’s surprising that the numbers are so small. Guess that just makes me a prepper though.

        That same list would make for many good future forum topics. Obviously the world has need for improvement on many of these topics, so I’d love to see future posts about things such as how to protect your finances, what to look for and how to shop for insurance plans, what’s a basic emergency kit that even a grandma could make,…

      • 2

        Hi Gideon,

        First Thank YOU! I had no idea what those three dots were for and I was afraid to touch the. When I first started posting, I kept pressing report instead of submit because of how I associated where it was located. I would be in a total panic…going..no,no,no…ackkk…

        I’ve only ever been on two other forums groups and that was years ago and they were set up differently. So again, thank you. 

        Glad you liked the nile joke – it’s old but still funny. I mess up jokes which actually becomes the joke – so no comedy act for me.

        I was glad to see an uptick in some of the numbers. I hope the trend for people participating in preparedness continues.

        I agree Gideon, that that list would be good for forum topics or webinar discussion or Q&A.

        So many people don’t have a basic will. I don’t know how it is the USA but in Canada if you die intestate (which means without a will) your estate will go to an administrator,who gets to charge fees for administering the estate. From there, the estate is further charged to find next of kin through whatever means are used.

        How the estate is awarded in Canada depends upon Provincial laws. Your spouse does not automatically recieve the estate. Now we have many blended families which further complicates things.

        It is a long drawn out mess in many cases where a simple will could have saved time and money that a surviving family may desperately need.

        Dealing with banking side of intestate accounts is no picnic either. I have done that when I worked in branch banking. My heart went out to the grieving families who were running around trying to sort out a huge mess at a time when they should have been able to grieve their loss, comfort and help their children adjust (even adult children need support).

        If accounts are not joint and several (both parties equally liable and legally entitled), then that further compounds the transfer of the estate. Joint accounts are so much easier to handle in the event of death or debilitiation. Some people don’t like them. I don’t know why. If I can’t trust the person I’m partnered to share a joint account, then something is wrong. You can still keep a small sole account for your “mad money splurges.”

        An example of how sole accounts can mess up an estate: My Aunt Grace was married to a man back in the day when women were chattel and had few rights or real respect. It didn’t help that he was a miser and seemed to love money more than her.

        He not only had numerous sole accounts spread everywhere. The accounts were also in various names. He had no beneficiary info on the accounts.

        He got Parkinson’s disease. Aunt Grace, true to her name, cared for him in her 80’s, lifting him in and out of bath tub right to the very end. They lived on a farm in an ancient two storey farmhouse. It was in such bad shape that a piece of plaster came down off the ceiling and just about killed them both.

        Aunt Grace had never worked or paid into Canada Pension Plan. She received a small Old Age Security Pension that every Canadian receives as citizen of Canada for x amount of years, and a Guaranteed Income Supplement that works on a sliding scale and is meant to help the most needy of our Canadian seniors.

        What saved Aunt Grace was her daughter who bought a nice mobile home, brand new and nicely laid out. She had it installed next door to her house on her farm. Aunt Grace lived out most of the final years of her life that way – in some real comfort and cared for properly. 

        She was one of the lucky ones who had family (daughter) and siblings ready to step in and help her. Some people aren’t so fortunate. The will and estate subject is an important one.

        Her daughter never did find any of those bank accounts. So the money in the unclaimed bank accounts will go to the Bank of Canada after 10 years who then act as a custodian on behalf of the person.

        I included this bit on how it works in Canada. It is worth a read for anyone in another Country because, it isn’t just about the money in a bank account. There are so many places where money is held, stocks, precious metals, registered savings plans, life insurance, safety deposit boxes, accounts in foreign currency. So you see how it can be a real mess.


        Thanks again Gideon for telling me about those three dots. This old dog is feeling a lot smarter now 🙂

    • 2

      Eureka – I have found it !

      Good afternoon Ubique,

      Went to open the FEMA link and got a “Welcome Back”.  Had been a subscriber to their specific category of emails and had to delete website…..too time consuming even to just delete stuff.  After FEMA expanded, how do you say “bureaucracy”  ? I saw but didn’t seek the CPA info.

      A disaster’s varfiables are substantial.  The old standby “It depends” governs much. Is the disaster region wide (like a hurricane)  Is the disaster an active shooter ? (Ft Dietrick, Federick Marland environs) ? Is the disaster a “notice-event” when the state emergency authorities and the Florida Governor send out public address messages warning of a contaminated pool of HAZMAT waste (near Tampa, Florida) ?

      A BIG change to the statistics production by FEMA and their contractors is the recent addition of ~ 40 million immigrants into the country.  Assimilation takes much time and today, many newcomers avoid surveys to the max.

      In reply to how to help people learn emergency preparedness;

      Encourage them to join a group such as a rescue squad even if “only” working the telephones. Encourange them to join a responder group.  Here, too, even if “only” working the radios or report forms.

      I personally encourage newcomers to get their children into 4-H type of groups. 

      I invite newcomers to programs – pre COVID restrictions – some of us travel to.  These are only day trips. 

      So far, only a few are prepared.  It’s not nice but an expression used around here is “Social Darwinism”.

      • 2

        Good Afternoon Bob,

        Cool, glad you found a lost link. I had that happen a couple of time – every bookmark blown out and the painstaking process to get them back.

        The disaster variables and their dessimination that you mentioned are something I hadn’t before considered.

        Just look at the spectrum of disasters that occur now. Before it was hurricane, tornado, fire, flood and now it’s terrorist attacks, bombs, shooters with a variety of grudges, riots, events triggered by climate change, new viruses and untreatable bacteria.

        Yep, that’s a real Ed Sullivan variety show – “a really big show” as he used to say.

        I hadn’t considered the effects of a huge influx of newly arrived Americans. I can see where people who are recently arrived would be reluctant to take a survey.

        Really great suggestions for how to encourage people to become involved with emergency preparedness. It doesn’t have to start with a list of prep items. We can encourage people to prepare by exposing them to volunteer opportunities that feature emergency response and preparedness in them. Very nice idea, Bob.