Disaster-proof: why some stay put during natural catastrophes

It's not as simple as being stubborn, lazy or ignorant.

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“I have been here 15 years and been through so many storms. We have been told many times to evacuate,” Scott Abraham, a Miami resident in the path of category 5 Hurricane Irma told CNN, before explaining why he was staying put. “If it does, I think we are safe. We have food. We have supplies. We have everything we need.”

Given that more than six million people were ordered to evacuate their homes in Florida because of the danger that Hurricane Irma posed, it’s safe to say that getting out seemed like the safest bet. But Abraham's decision to ignore the advice does not make him especially unusual. During mass evacuations, there are always people who choose to stay behind. 

Constant coverage of Hurricane Harvey, which is thought to have been the second most costly disaster in US history, and Hurricane Irma, which has been steadily progressing through Florida after causing widespread destruction across the Caribbean, should be enough incentive to encourage people to pack up and get on the road. In Cuba, which has a highly developed disaster-preparedness plan, three people were killed after ignoring governmental evacuation orders. 

Disaster preparedness and messaging studies have found that mandatory evacuation orders increase the rate of evacuation by 6 per cent. Anecdotal evidence has also found that when emergency responders are asking people to write Social Security numbers on their arms to make it easier to identify bodies, or to fill in next of kin forms, it scares many into leaving danger zones. But even those tactics don’t work for some.

You might think that comes down to some innate trait in those determined to stick it out. Public perception of those who choose to stay behind in the event of a disaster tends to be negative, with those refusing to take sensible advice seen as stubborn, lazy or just plain ignorant. In reality, people use a combination of factors to decide whether to stay.

Even under mandatory evacuation orders, many of the communities that stayed put throughout the devastation of Hurricane Katrina did so because of what they saw as the strength of their local community, preferring to weather the storm with the people they knew. Others made their decisions based on factors such as whether they trusted their local government, the costs of evacuation, or concerns about losing their jobs or the security of their homes in the event of looting.

Those who already have mobility issues – such as the pregnant, disabled or elderly – might actually not be able to leave their homes, especially as conditions worsen. Meanwhile, inequalities of race, wealth and age are also amplified during extreme weather scenarios. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health found that people who didn't evacuate during Hurricane Katrina cited economic concerns as reason enough to stay even if they wanted to evacuate.

The fact is that for those in the path of danger, safety can come with a hefty price tag. Travel website The Points Guy found that United Airlines was charging $1,000 for a flight out of Hurricane Irma's path to Chicago, while other one-way tickets such as Miami to Detroit could range from $400 to $885.

And if families have access to a car, petrol prices for long journeys can be prohibitively expensive, and unless they have friends or family with space out of harm's way, costs of accommodation and food have to be accounted for, too. For people living paycheck to paycheck, or without job or home security, evacuation could seem irrational if not impossible. 

And yet, there are still people who could evacuate and choose not to. Research into disaster-preparedness messaging and risk perception has highlighted that people who have handled previous storms often feel as though they can handle the next one. Laurie Mastropaolo in Florida, told ABC News  that she had weathered Hurricane Sandy in 2012 so she preferred to ride this one out too. Others cite their disaster preparedness; such as flood insured houses, impact resistant windows or their comparative distance from the eye of the storm. 

Professor Walter Gillis Peacock, the director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University, told the New York Times that “there will always be locals that think they know better or are just hard-headed, recalcitrant, blustering individuals”. Exactly that attitude was on display in a viral Fox News Clip from Hurricane Irma showing a middle aged man saying he knew that he wasn't in danger because of the precise location of the hurricane, even though flood warnings and orders to evacuate were still circulating. 

Despite this intransigence, justified or otherwise, the importance of effective disaster-preparedness messaging cannot be emphasised enough. In 2016, a Japanese court awarded 1.43 billion yen (£11.2m) in damages to the families of children who were killed after the devastating 2011 tsunami. School officials at Okawa primary school on the north-east coast of Japan failed to heed warnings of evacuation, leading to the deaths of 74 children and ten teachers.

Undoubtedly, there will always be sceptics, even the people in power. Joe McComb, mayor of Corpus Christi in Texas, only issued a voluntary evacuation order for his city during Hurricane Harvey, saying: “I think people are smart enough to make their evacuation decisions – they don’t need the government telling them what to do”.