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Census Data Crucial in Emergency Preparedness and Evacuation Planning

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This story is part of an occasional series on the important community benefits that come from responding to the 2020 Census.  

As people watched Hurricane Irma rage across their TV screens toward the Florida panhandle in 2017, the Cape Coral Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) prepared for action.

The low-lying community is located just south of Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf Coast and it was time to evacuate.

Information about how many people live in a town and where they live is critical for emergency response.

Shape your future. Start Here. 2020 Census

“It’s difficult when we’re surrounded by water and there are only about four good evacuation routes out of the city with 200,000 people,” said Ryan Lamb, Cape Coral’s fire chief. “That can get congested very quickly.”

The emergency response team and Cape Coral Fire Department sprang into action to safely evacuate 120,000 residents in the storm’s path and station additional police officers and firefighters around the community. 

Key to their efforts? Information from the U.S. Census Bureau, including stats gleaned from the most recent census.

The team used population maps derived from Census Bureau data to identify distribution points for supplies — and to send wheelchair-accessible vans to pick up mostly older residents who initially wanted to stay put and ride out the storm.

And when the city’s one shelter became overwhelmed, emergency teams used the information to direct people to shelters in other counties.

After the Storm

Once the storm passed, the emergency team coordinated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Army National Guard to clear debris and start rebuilding.

The city suffered $20 million in damages — a small portion of the estimated $50 billion in damages (pdf) wrought across Florida and other southeastern states by one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.

New Fire Stations and Emergency Preparedness

It’s important to know how your responses to the 2020 Census this spring can affect disaster preparedness. Information about how many people live in a town and where they live is critical for emergency response.

Data from the census are used to allocate millions of dollars in federal funding each year, including for emergency response services. Statistics from the 2020 Census will provide baseline numbers not only for funding of federal disaster relief, but also preparation, rescue coordination and even locations for new fire stations. 

“FEMA is now using our resources to identify vulnerable communities,” said Andrew Hait, a survey statistician and economist in the Census Bureau’s Economic Directorate.

FEMA’s vulnerability index initially was designed to measure threats of terrorism but, “They’ve expanded its use to include natural disasters,” he said.

According to Hait, the vulnerability assessment formula now uses Census Bureau data to identify communities with critical business types, including hospitals, corporate headquarters, and other facilities that render an area more at risk during natural disasters.

It can also be used to plan for makeshift shelters and response centers.

“A community that has one large regional hospital has a very different vulnerability profile than a community that doesn’t,” Hait said.

Cape Coral is racing to keep up with its swelling population. In the past two years, it has opened a new fire station and expanded a two-lane highway into four lanes and two more fire stations are slated to be constructed within the next five years.

“As our population continues to change, we need to be mindful of that, so we can continue to provide local service that meets their expectations,” Lamb said.

Counting After a Disaster

When disaster strikes, people may relocate, either temporarily or permanently. They may stay with relatives or in a hotel. 

That’s among the challenges the Census Bureau is preparing for when it conducts the 2020 Census.

There can be abrupt changes in population, such as in Paradise and Butte County, California, after the devastating Camp Fire in 2018, which have what Hait calls a “cascade effect.”

When enough people leave, others follow. Only about 1,000 people live in Paradise today, compared with more than 26,000 before the fire.

“The rebuilding process after a major disaster takes a long time,” Hait said. “It’s a massive undertaking and often extends well through many of our business and demographic surveys.”

Similar scenarios are playing out across the United States and its territories – in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria (2017), North Carolina after Hurricane Florence (2018), Alaska after the 2018 earthquake and in the Midwest after floods earlier this year.

In some areas, census takers will interview people, while in others, they can respond to the 2020 Census online, by phone or by mail.

Impact of Disasters Can Last Years

Louisiana is still dealing with the effects of a shift in population following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

According to Census Bureau data, it was not until 2014 that New Orleans rejoined the list of the nation’s 50 most populous cities, with a population of 384,320. Before Katrina, its population was 494,294. A year later, it had dropped to 230,172.

The Census Bureau tracks and produces timely local data critical to emergency planning, preparedness, and recovery efforts by event on census.gov.

Every September, the Department of Homeland Security recognizes National Preparedness Month by promoting programming and sharing resources to remind families and communities of the importance of disaster and emergency planning.  

The 2019 theme is “Prepared, Not Scared.”  It’s important for people to remember that a key to disaster prep is responding to the 2020 Census, which can lead to more effective and efficient emergency response times and rescue operations, and allocation of funds for rebuilding communities.

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Page Last Revised - February 25, 2022
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