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Complacency Isn't the Only Reason People Don't Evacuate for Hurricanes

Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio

Why don’t people leave when a hurricane hits where they live? And how do news outlets and emergency officials and even governors make people understand that they should?

Those are two questions that vex all of the above-mentioned groups during a storm. In the first week of September, Hurricane Dorian menaced the South Carolina coast for days and triggered evacuation orders for every beach community in the state.

And yet, more people than not in some evacuation zones just didn’t evacuate.  

On the evening the storm hit Horry County, Sept. 5, Emergency Management Coordinator Randy Webster announced that between 15 and 40 percent of residents in evacuation zones along the Grand Strand had left. Exactly where in that range the numbers landed depended on the area, but that still means that as many as 85 percent of people in some vulnerable areas near the shoreline stayed home.

At the same briefing, Webster also said that Horry County’s four emergency evacuation shelters were all open – and were housing only about 5 percent of everybody they could.

This briefing kicked off with a word from County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner. That word was “complacency.” Gardner said he was concerned that residents of the Grand Strand might not be taking the storm seriously enough. And yes, some people, no matter where, no matter what, just don’t worry about things like hurricanes.

But can low evacuation rates really be chalked up to sheer complacency? Jeannie Haubert, chair of Winthrop University’s Department of Sociology, Criminology, and anthropology, says it’s usually a lot more complicated than that.

Money, Pets, and Prejudice

“It’s not just that people are being stubborn,” Haubert says. “There’s a whole host of factors that play in.”

Haubert came to Winthrop after being displaced from her Louisiana home by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Post-Katrina, she and a team of researchers looked into what made so many people stay in what became one of the most infamous disaster areas in U.S. history.

Very little of it, she says, was about complacency. It usually was about money. Despite shelters and disaster aid, it’s costly to leave your home for a few days. Haubert says evacuating could mean days missed from work (i.e., lost wages), having to dine out (which often includes children), and paying for a hotel stay (which might cost extra if you’re taking pets with you).

All costs factored in, staying away from home for even two or three days, she says, could easily add up to $1,000. And that’s just one hurricane, in a state that’s always in play whenever a new tropical storm whips up in the equatorial Atlantic. Two or three evacuations over the course of a season or two is a prohibitive burden on low-income families, she says.

Speaking of low-income families, Haubert says residents of poor areas also frequently don’t have the option of staying with friends and family far away because their social networks consist of people from and in the same neighborhoods. So there is no safe place for them to go.

There’s also blatant discrimination. When studying New Orleans’ poor residents who stayed when the levees broke, Haubert says a lot of people opened their homes for the newly displaced – but with caveats, like “white people only” and “Christians only.”

And then there is the matter of those pets, which usually are not allowed in human shelters. In Conway, the Horry County Animal Care Center took in animals for people who went to human shelters. But not everyone knows those arrangements exist, and a lot of people, Haubert says, just won’t leave their pets in harm’s way. So they stay.

And Torrie Kaveniss, who seemed so cavalier about not evacuating from her Myrtle Beach home, offers another nuance as to why people don’t leave disaster areas.

“I’m a nurse,” she said. “I can’t leave.”

Storm Size, Hot Hands, and Mixed Messages

Kim Stenson, director of the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, says storm intensity plays a part in evacuation rates too.

“Category 1 and Category 2 storms are probably not going to get the compliance level that we’re looking for,” Stenson says. “But if it’s a major hurricane, a Category 3 through 5, that’s probably going to drive some difference.”

Where there is actual complacency, Stenson says a person’s track record can factor into their decisions.

“If in fact you’ve survived Hugo or some of these other storms and didn’t have any major issues,” he says, “then you’re probably going to consider maybe not evacuating.”

It’s a version of what’s called the hot hand fallacy – the belief that your winning streak will continue simply because it has up to this point. There are two things to keep in mind, though. One is that if you’re gambling based on weather model predictions, your odds of pulling a bad hand are pretty high.

“That error cone that the National Weather Service puts out, that’s only accurate about two-thirds of the time,” Stenson says. “Even if you’re outside of the cone, it’s doesn’t mean you’re not necessarily going to get hit.”

Second, says Jessica Stumpf, the emergency management coordinator for Greenville County, is that people need to keep in mind that every storm is different. Stumpf is a former TV news meteorologist who has been preaching this particular message for years. It’s one of tools weather broadcasters use to get across what’s at stake without overplaying their hands.

“You can’t scare people into taking action when there is a big storm or some other threat,” says. “We have to try to have a clear and concise message, not only about what the threat is, but what the actions are that you should take.”

That involves coordination between news outlets, government officials, and emergency management personnel, to ensure that everyone is on the same page, she says.  

But, then, storms are a lot like people. They’re all different. So trying to find the right message for everyone is about as easy as pinpointing where and when a devastating storm will hit every time.