Why They Aren’t Evacuating

Every time a hurricane comes we see news stories of the people who refused to evacuate.  They fascinate us in their stubbornness.  They are blasted in the news stories for their disregard for public safety, a critical voice overlaid videos of helicopters hovering over flooded neighborhoods to make rooftop rescues. We ask- Why didn’t you just leave when the call for evacuation was made?  Seems so simple.

So why don’t people evacuate?  If you think it’s that simple for everyone to pack up and leave when asked to, think again.  Emergency Managers study the populations that are most strongly affected in disaster- and the greatest impacts are for the most vulnerable populations in a community.  This applies during mandatory evacuation and continues well after the the damage has been done. Vulnerable populations often can’t leave even when it is mandatory- for a number of reasons including:

  • They can’t afford it.  Don’t own a vehicle, can’t afford a hotel.
  • They’re stuck- old, sick or disabled.
  • Obligations to stay and offer support to someone in the first two groups.

A recent study corroborates this- ”in our study the average annual income of people who stayed was only $19,500, and only 54 percent of “stayers” had a car, compared to 100 percent of those who left.”  (NYT link)   People most often stick around because they are desperate- they don’t have the car to pack up, or the cash to spend for a hotel.

Another reason to stick around- those who feel they are called to do so to protect others. Although the media narrative is commonly that people stay because they are stubborn, stupid and reckless- these are not the reasons that people risk their lives. The authors of the study noted bove had this to say:

During survey interviews, survivors who stayed focused on interdependence, emphasizing themes of sticking together, religious faith and communal and family ties. In fact, over two-thirds of those who stayed explicitly discussed the importance of connections to others.

“We had a good community” one Katrina survivor in the New Orleans area said. “All the people here help one another.”  (..) These benefits may especially resonate with working-class Americans, who are more likely to think of themselves as part of a broader social network, with responsibilities to vulnerable neighbors; in contrast, members of the middle- and upper-class, who tend to evacuate, are more likely to think of themselves as independent families, free to come and go as they please. NYT (link)

There is a resurgence of civic pride as the clouds clear away and the floods recede- the way that communities self-organize and provide mutual aid during and after a crisis. We all catch glimpses of it after a disaster, in stories online and in the news.

So perhaps the Command and Control model for community crisis support doesn’t make any damn sense. You can’t force someone who is blind or wheelchair-bound to get up and evacuate.  And you can’t convince anyone that FEMA know the needs and vulnerable populations of a community better than the community itself.

The next hurricane that comes along, some people are going to be shelter in place, stuck in a horrible nightmare- and others are going to stick around to rescue them. Instead of blaming or forcing anybody, emergency managers would do a better job by supporting this phenomenon.  They ought to support vulnerable populations with no resources or transportation, and they should plan to support the heroes who stick around with a canoe and a pallet of water.

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