Most Americans are no better prepared for a disaster than they were before hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast and are generally unaware of local response plans for disasters, according to a new study by New York University.

Citing polls taken before and after the Aug. 29 and Sept. 24 hurricanes, university researchers said that fumbled rescue operations in New Orleans caused "near-catastrophic impacts on public confidence" in local and federal governments. Surveys found the biggest change in attitudes among poor people: Two-thirds concluded that the most important preparedness resource is one they had least at hand -- money to prepare for or to escape from a disaster.

"Americans did not receive a wake-up call from Katrina," said New York University professor Paul C. Light. They say they lack time, money and information about what to do or where to get help, he said.

"Complacency and confusion can only breed chaos when disaster actually strikes," Light said.

He said state and local governments must take responsibility for the problem by holding drills and making it clear where people should turn for help in a disaster. Congress should give the president authority to focus on citizen preparedness; improve government recruitment, retention and training of emergency managers; and streamline the residential appointments process, he said.

"It is absolutely critical that we improve preparedness for catastrophic events in this country," said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke. "There clearly is an appetite on the part of the American public to learn more."

The Princeton Survey Research Associates surveyed 1,506 Americans July 14 to 28 and 1,004 others Oct. 10 to 16 for NYU's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and its Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response. The margin of error was plus or minus three percentage points.

Asked if they were more prepared or less prepared after the hurricanes, 65 percent said they were about the same or less prepared.

Before Katrina, 38 percent of respondents rated local police as "very prepared" for a bombing and 22 percent gave that assessment of readiness for a deadly virus or disease. After the hurricane, 17 percent said they considered local police very prepared for an emergency.