For several anxious days in August and September 2005, America held its collective breath as helicopters crisscrossed the skies over New Orleans searching for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, some of whom had been trapped in their homes when levees protecting the city from nearby Lake Pontchartrain collapsed during the storm. Television footage conveyed startling images of devastation and desperation, with dead bodies floating amid debris and families standing on rooftops, waving frantically at the helicopters as water engulfed their homes.
Mobile billboards sponsored by the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter depict the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake. The billboards are part of a campaign to promote earthquake preparedness.
(Photo credit: Jill Palmer)
Earlier this year, residents of San Francisco witnessed similar scenes of destruction, this time from an earthquake that toppled downtown high-rises and reduced buildings to hollow shells and clouds of ash. But no emergency sirens wailed, no rescue vehicles descended upon the city, and no frightened citizens took to the streets. The only reactions were gasps of disbelief and puzzled looks, followed -- or so the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter hopes -- by personal resolutions to prepare for a real earthquake.
The images of devastation, which appeared on mobile billboards (as well as on TV and in print publications), were part of a campaign designed to "shock, force people to think, and then take action to get prepared," according to a chapter press release. The release noted that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is a 62 percent chance that a major earthquake will hit the Bay Area in the next 26 years, but only about 17 percent of local residents say they are prepared for such an emergency.
"The only thing that seems to get people's attention is when a catastrophic event takes place somewhere in the world," says Harold Brooks, chief executive of the Bay Area Chapter. "When that happens, we see more people coming in to buy a kit or enrolling to take a course. But when the event starts to fade from memory, the numbers go back down. So we wanted to do something that would stimulate people to get prepared even during peacetime."
Indifferent to Warnings
The ad campaign highlights the challenges facing not just the Bay Area Chapter but also the American Red Cross as a whole in helping the public prepare for emergencies. Nationally, polls show that only about one in every 14 people have taken the necessary measures to prepare for a disaster.
Perceptions are partly to blame -- perceptions that disasters can be avoided easily and pose minimal risk to any single person. Another factor is complacency, which has several causes. Some of the complacency toward earthquakes stems from the fact that California is prone to temblors, and over time most residents become indifferent to warnings about them. In addition, many people believe that some level of risk is unavoidable, so they feel less motivated to prepare for unexpected emergencies.
Changing these perceptions and rousing people from their complacency are tall orders, but the Red Cross believes it can do both. In September 2006, the Red Cross launched Be Red Cross Ready, an initiative to promote personal and community preparedness by taking three actions: get a kit, make a plan, and be informed. The Red Cross hopes that organizing preparedness information into simple, discrete actions will motivate more people to plan for emergencies rather than simply react to them.
"As we looked back at preparedness since September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, surveys showed many people weren't any more prepared after those disasters than they were before them," says Darlene Sparks Washington, director of preparedness at American Red Cross national headquarters. "One of the challenges we identified was that there were a variety of messages out there telling people what they need to do, and we felt we might be contributing to this message clutter. So we made a decision to evolve our preparedness messaging into three actions to align with the Department of Homeland Security's Ready campaign and bring uniformity to the national preparedness message."
Taking Preparedness Seriously
The stakes riding on Be Red Cross Ready are high, and not just because of earthquakes. The Atlantic hurricane season started on June 1, and forecasters are predicting an above-average year: 13 to 17 named storms, with three to five of those becoming major hurricanes. Meanwhile, "lesser" disasters such as wildfires, tornadoes, flash floods, and thunderstorms kill hundreds of people annually, injure thousands more, and cause billions of dollars in property damage.
To reduce the toll from these disasters, the Red Cross is encouraging chapters to conduct preparedness activities in their communities and urge local residents to get a kit, make a plan, and be informed. By engaging the public on a personal level, chapters can reinforce the Be Red Cross Ready message and help more people take preparedness seriously.
"We look at disaster preparedness as a public health issue," Washington says. "There are lots of examples of successful campaigns targeting motivation and behavior change in public health. What we're seeking to do now is to apply that approach to disaster preparedness."
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of thousands of disasters across the country each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to victims of disaster. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster, please do so at the time of your donation. Call 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.