"Zombie attacks" made the list of disasters people worry about, in a spring survey of 5,835 adults by coupon site Tada.com. But they (and other oddballs including alien invasion and Obamacare) were more of a footnote compared to tornadoes, which 20 percent of people worried about. Hurricanes (14 percent), earthquakes (14 percent), blizzards (12 percent) and floods (12 percent) also made the list of top worries.
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"The thing about zombies is, they capture people's imagination in a way that actual disasters don't," said Russ Paulsen, executive director of community preparedness and resilience for the American Red Cross. "If thinking about zombies and thinking about it in a lighthearted way encourages people to take reasonable disaster preparedness steps, more power to them."
Given Americans' lack of disaster planning, anything that sparks that interest could make a big difference.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's 2013 Preparedness in America report classified 46 percent of Americans as falling into the "Not On Their Radar" profile. Of those people, just 34 percent were likely to have disaster supplies at home, and 27 percent, a family plan for emergencies.
(FEMA did not respond to requests for comment about the need for zombie preparedness.)
Perhaps scarier—the percentage of people taking the government's recommended preparedness actions in 2012, when the survey was conducted, hasn't budged since FEMA's first survey on the subject in 2007. Overall, 61 percent of Americans said they don't have a family emergency plan, and 48 percent don't have supplies set aside for a disaster. (See chart below for details on how ready Americans think they are for various types of emergency situations.)
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"People don't like to think about disasters," said John Caballero, creator of the Apocalypse Survival Guide. "They say, 'That will never happen to me.' "
Planning for zombies is better than planning for nothing at all and has plenty of practical applications.
"I'm tricking people into helping themselves," said Caballero. "If they make a group plan with their friends for a zombie apocalypse, and the next Hurricane Sandy comes in, they could use that plan to stay safe."
For example, the safest place in your home in the event of a zombie attack is probably also the best spot to shelter in the event of a tornado, Paulsen said.
Fleeing hordes of the undead? In the UC Irvine course, one of the more popular class discussions was a practical one for any disaster: Finding safety, said Sarah Eichhorn, associate dean for distance learning. "Where would you go?" she said. "If you had to get out of town, where would be safest?"