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Why some people never evacuate during a hurricane, according to a psychologist

The dire forecast for Hurricane Florence has prompted mandatory evacuation orders for more than a million people. Yet some will ignore the orders. 

Hurricane Florence Likely To Strike East Coast With Damaging Effect
Hurricane Florence looks menacing from the International Space Station.
NASA via Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Hurricane Florence is a powerful storm that’s expected to lash the Carolinas for days, bringing coastal flooding, high winds, and, most concerning of all, an extraordinary amount of rain.

“It cannot be emphasized enough that the most serious hazard associated with slow-moving Florence is extremely heavy rainfall, which will cause disastrous flooding that will be spreading inland through the weekend,” the National Hurricane Center warned Friday morning. Floodwaters are already rising throughout the region, and as more rain comes, they’ll only get higher.

Due to the severity of the forecast, more than 1.4 million people were told they must evacuate from the shorelines of North and South Carolina, as well as parts of Virginia. “This is not a storm that you need to try to ride out,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper told reporters Tuesday. “It’s historic and maybe once in a lifetime.”

But it was inevitable: Some people have refused to leave, even people who have been issued mandatory evacuation orders. Though the evacuations are “mandatory,” it doesn’t mean police will be going door to door forcing people out.

Despite the local authority’s pleas, there’s no amount of messaging that will get 100 percent of a population to evacuate. “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, said in a 2016 interview.

Why? The reasons are a bit complicated — and they reveal a lot about how risk is perceived and communicated. Part of it is indeed stubbornness. But people also refuse to leave for a variety of understandable reasons: Perhaps they’re dealing with a chronic illness that makes travel difficult, or the financial burden of leaving is a strain. Let’s break them down.

A few common reasons people don’t evacuate

There are myriad environmental or personal reasons 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.
  • There could be cases of people who don’t hear the warning. But in an age when warnings can be blasted out via radio, TV, and 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, though adoption of the law has been scattershot, a 2013 report found.
  • Even people with greater means sometimes refuse to evacuate. Some won’t leave for 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.
  • And some research suggests that if public officials make evacuation orders mandatory, people are somewhat more likely to heed the orders and flee. One study in the Journal of Transportation Engineering concluded that a mandatory evacuation order increases the likelihood of evacuating by 6 percent (using data from Hurricane Ivan in 2004). A voluntary order increases the likelihood by 4 percent.

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 uninformed, 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 Stephens, 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. (As a policy solution, it could make sense to give vouchers covering evacuation expenses to help ease the costs.) But the study concludes 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 if we hear reports of significant numbers of people waiting out Florence at home. And through it all, people generally feel like they have agency, like they’re making their own decisions.

How to get the truly stubborn people to leave

In the course of her research, Cuite talked 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 that 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, Cuite stressed, evacuation warnings are really, really tough to get right. There are so many ways they can backfire.

For instance, the “shadow evacuation” effect: 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.

In 2016, the New York Times outlined some 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.

How to follow Hurricane Florence:

  • The National Hurricane Center has a page updating every few hours with the latest watches and warnings for Florence. Check it out.
  • Follow the National Hurricane Center on Twitter; it will keep you up to date with all the latest forecasts, hazards, and warnings. Also follow its Charleston, South Carolina, branch.
  • Follow the Capital Weather Gang’s Twitter account. These folks tend to live-tweet storm updates.
  • Here’s a Twitter list of weather experts via meteorologist Eric Holthaus. These experts will give you up-to-the-second forecasts and warnings.

Watch: Remembering Katrina and the aftermath

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