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

The forecasts for Hurricane Harvey are dire. The National Hurricane Center has used the word “catastrophic” to describe the 30-plus inches of rain predicted for some areas around Texas. That’s about the amount of rain these cities typically get in a year.

Storm surges, biblical rains, and high winds are all conspiring for what could be the worst storm to touch the United States since Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma pummeled the Southeast 12 years ago.

This storm poses a major threat to life and property, and so far, evacuations along the Texas coast have been both mandatory and voluntary.

But 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, told us last year.

And already a few Texans in the path of the hurricane who’ve been told to evacuate are refusing to leave their homes. “A lot of people are taking this storm for granted, thinking it may not pose much of a danger to them,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told Houston reporters Thursday.

Why? The reasons are a bit complicated — and they reveal a lot about how risk is perceived and communicated. Let’s break them down.

A few common reasons 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 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 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.
  • 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 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.

Corpus Christi Mayor Joe McComb — whose city is directly in the likely path of the storm — only issued a voluntary evacuation, saying Thursday, “I think people are smart enough to make their evacuation decisions, and they don’t need the government telling them what to do.” Hopefully, people will evacuate anyway.

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 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. 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 Harvey at home. 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 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 Harvey

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recently 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,” the NOAA explains on its website. One new tool is the 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 every few hours with the latest watches and warnings for Harvey. Check it out.
  • The National Hurricane Center also has a storm surge predictor. If you live on the Gulf 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 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

Sourse: vox.com