Press Releases

2003 Releases

Survey Shows Few Americans Making Preparations In Case of a Terrorist Attack Despite Department of Homeland Security Warnings and Recommendations

For immediate release:  April 17, 2003

BOSTON, MA –  A new study by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security finds that although most Americans (73%) knew that the nation was on a high level of alert (orange) against a terrorist attack few developed evacuation plans or made arrangements for ‘sheltering in place’ as recommended by government officials. 

Approximately one in four (28%) Americans said they had given some thought to making an evacuation plan for themselves and their family.  However, only 12 percent actually made a plan. Very few Americans reported practicing their evacuation plan (4%).  One of the reasons for this lack of planning may be that Americans are not sure what government officials mean when they talk about the need for evacuation plans.  Fifty-five percent of Americans said they thought they knew what government officials meant when they talked about the need for Americans to have an evacuation plan in the event of a terrorist attack.  When asked what they thought an evacuation plan included, 42% said a plan for getting to a community shelter, and 35% said an evacuation plan included a plan for getting out of their community. Both are recommended by the Department of Homeland Security.

Only 37% of the public reported having a windowless room in their home where they could shelter in place.  While most Americans (75%) had duct tape that could be used to shelter in place, only a third (32%) reported having plastic sheeting and only 28% had both.  Again, this lack of preparation could be due to confusion on the part of the public.  Only one quarter of Americans (24%) report that they had heard the term “shelter in place” and knew what it meant.

“The public is confused about what they should do when government officials talk about evacuation plans and sheltering in place,” said Robert J. Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.  “Government officials need to focus more on telling Americans what they should do in an emergency and spend less time talking about duct tape and extra batteries.”

The majority of Americans had many of the items that the government recommends buying as a precaution against a terrorist attack.  The most commonly possessed items were:  a working flashlight (94%), adequate supplies of food and water for three days (84%), extra batteries (82%), duct tape (75%), a working battery operated radio (75%), and a first aid kit (73%).  They did not report buying these items because of the heightened terror alert.  In fact, only 3% of Americans said they bought duct tape or plastic sheeting after the heightened terror alerts.

Americans are concerned about the level of precautions being taken in the places where they work or go to school.  Among people who worked or went to school, only one-third of the public believed that the place where they worked or went to school had made adequate preparations for a terrorist attack.  Further, only 22 percent of Americans reported that someone at work or school had discussed with them plans for evacuation of the building in the case of a terrorist attack.

Among parents with children in school or daycare, 50 percent reported that, to the best of their knowledge, the school or daycare had a plan in place for how to deal with a terrorist attack.  Seventy-six percent of parents who knew of the plan said the school or daycare had done a good job in informing them of it.  The majority of parents with children who attended school or daycare thought their children would be adequately cared for and safe if they had to remain at the school due to a terrorist attack for a day (85%), overnight (76%) or for three days (55%).

Survey results and power point graphs are available here: (survey) (power point slides)

For more information on the Department of Homeland Security’s recommended preparations in case of a terrorist attack, go to

This study was designed and analyzed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. The project director is Robert J. Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health. The research team also includes Catherine M. DesRoches, John M. Benson, Kalahn Taylor-Clark, Kathleen Weldon and Liz Mackie of the Harvard School of Public Health and Melissa J. Herrmann of ICR/International Communications Research. Fieldwork was conducted via telephone by ICR/International Communications Research of Media (PA) between March 21 – 25, 2003, one month after the Department of Homeland Security launched its site.  The survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,007 adults age 18 and over. Margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752