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Why do some people never evacuate for a hurricane?

 “There’s a certain population that’s never going to leave.” It’s important to figure out why.  

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The forecasts for Hurricane Matthew, now a Category 4, on the East Coast for Florida are growing dire. The hurricane is expected to scrape along the shore beginning Thursday night with 145 mile per hour winds. And the predictions for what it will bring are grim: storm surges along the coast of 6 to 9 feet; up to 12 inches of rain. Trees and power lines will be knocked down. Houses may get destroyed or severely damaged.

“This storm will kill you,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned Thursday.

And yet we know from past storms — Katrina, Sandy, and now Matthew — some will refuse to heed the warnings and suffer the consequences. According to the New York Times, “Even after all of the best practices in emergency communications are exhausted, 5 percent of the population will most likely remain in harm’s way.”

Even in the face of forecasts like this.

“There’s a certain population that’s never going to leave,” Cara Cuite, a Rutgers psychologist who heads an NOAA-sponsored project on best practices in storm communication, tells me over the phone.

But no evacuation story is simple.

A few common reasons why people don’t evacuate

There are myriad environmental or personal reasons why people don’t evacuate.

There are people who don’t leave due to disabilities — they simply can’t get out of their homes and don’t have anyone to help them.

(Then there could be cases of people who don’t hear the warning. But in an age when warnings can be blasted out on radio, TV, smartphones, and through old-fashioned door-to-door notifications, this is becoming less likely.)

And then there are people who can’t stand to leave their pets behind. A 2011 poll sponsored by the ASPCA found that around 30 percent of dog and cat owners who live in the South (where hurricanes are more common) wouldn’t know what to do with their pets during an evacuation.

In 2006, Congress passed the PETS Act, which mandates that disaster preparedness plans take into account companion animals. (Adoption of the law has been scattershot, a 2013 report found.)

Even people with greater means sometimes refuse to evacuate. Some won’t leave in fear of their home being damaged or looted, Cuite said. Or they’ll remember weathering a previous storm and feel confident in their ability to survive the current one.

One lesson from Katrina: Don’t be so quick to shame the people who stay

During Hurricane Katrina, people who refused evacuation orders were cast in a negative light: as too lazy, too uniformed, or too self-centered to make the decision to leave. The decision to stay was framed as a negative choice. But those who made the decision to stay saw it completely differently.

That was the conclusion of a 2009 paper in Psychological Science. A group of researchers at Stanford and Princeton surveyed Hurricane Katrina survivors and people who were not in the storm’s path, asking them about their perception of the people who refused evacuation orders.

“There’s this mismatch between the way that the event was seen from the outside and the way that the people themselves actually experienced it,” Nicole Stevens, who led the study, said in a press release when the study was published.

The people who refused during Katrina were less financially secure than those who left, the study mentions. So they couldn’t leave as easily. But the study concludes that that doesn’t mean they weren’t proactive.

Their proactive measures included “connecting to others, being strong, and maintaining faith in God,” the study found. “Given the limited material resources available in working-class Black contexts, stayers more often than leavers emphasized the importance of connection to and caring for others.”

For these people, the thought of leaving was the selfish choice. We ought to remember that. And through it all, people generally feel like they have agency. They’re making their own decisions.

How to get the truly stubborn people to leave

In the course of her research, Cuite has been talking to first responders, asking them what works to get people to evacuate. Some approaches used are drastic, like writing Social Security numbers on people’s arms in permanent marker (so that search and rescue can identify their bodies), having people fill out “next of kin” contact form, or telling residents rescues will not be available in their neighborhood.

“It’s trying to make people scared,” Cuite says. “But the issue with scaring people is that you want to make sure they have the information they need to evacuate. Here’s how you evacuate, here are the best roads to take, here’s where the shelters are,” and so on.

(It’s important to note that it’s really difficult to do research on storm messaging. You can give people surveys about how they might respond, but it’s much harder to see how they actually do respond in an actual emergency.)

Overall, she stressed, evacuation warnings are really, really tough to get right. There are so many ways they can backfire.

For instance, take the “shadow evacuation” effect: That’s when people on the “safe” side of an evacuation border decide to leave too. This can clog up roads and other emergency response resources. And Cuite says the “crying wolf” effect is real. If emergency managers make catastrophic predictions with too much confidence, and then those forecasts change, people might not listen as carefully in the future.

The New York Times outlined today some different strategies authorities are trying to communicate the urgency of a hurricane threat and what to do in one. For instance, authorities shouldn’t compare new storms to old storms because “making comparisons can give residents a false sense of security.” And it may seem obvious, but it is important for warnings to be as specific as possible, setting a deadline for people to leave.

In the case of Matthew, Gov. Scott’s message has been unambiguous.

"You have to evacuate now if you are in an evacuation zone,” Scott said Thursday. “To everyone on Florida’s east coast, if you are reluctant to evacuate, just think of all the people the hurricane has already killed. You and your family could be among these numbers if you don’t take this seriously."

According to CNN, more than 2 million people have been urged to evacuate from Florida up to South Carolina.

How to follow Hurricane Matthew

  • Recently NOAA has been revamping its tools to better communicate storm risks. For instance, it’s a common misconception that wind speed is the most dangerous part of a hurricane. It’s not. “In fact, flooding is the major threat from tropical cyclones for people living inland,” NOAA explains on its website.

One new tool is NOAA’s storm surge predictor: Use it to find out the risk of flood in your area.

  • The National Hurricane Center has a page updating with the latest watches and warnings for Matthew. Check it out.
  • The National Hurricane Center also has a storm surge predictor. If you live on the coast, you’ll want to check your risk for flooding. The NHC notes that this tool is still a prototype, and that “due to forecast uncertainty, the actual areas that experience life-threatening inundation may differ from the areas shown on this map.”
  • Follow the Capital Weather Gang’s Twitter account. These folk tend to live-tweet storm updates.

Watch: Remembering Katrina and the aftermath