Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why do people stay when they know a potentially devastating hurricane is coming?

A hurricane isn't like a tornado, which can be extremely destructive but often comes with only a few minutes' - or even seconds' - worth of warning. Earthquakes can happen with no warning whatsoever. Hurricanes develop over the ocean, and often take several days to reach land. People are able to watch the hurricane strengthen or weaken as it comes toward them. They can track the storm through the TV or the Internet. If weather forecasters and reporters and saying that there will be a large amount of damage, why do the people who should be able to evacuate (not those why stay because they have no resources or transportation) decide to stay?

Newsweek talked to Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and an associate dean for Columbia University. He was asked about those people who voluntarily chose to stay despite warnings:

I heard an interview this morning on NPR with someone who was electing to stay in Galveston. This was a guy, his family and extended family, that were moving into a masonary building to ride it out. They are strong-willed, independent individuals who I think relish the idea of riding out something most of us would consider to be too dangerous to remain. However, this is an evacuation with several days' warning.

We just did a study on evacuations under scenarios of disasters without warnings. We are very concerned about disasters that occur without warning when we have to do evacuations in real-time—in essence, immediate—for example, an earthquake or a terrorist nuclear attack. We found about two thirds of people with children would not comply with official orders to evacuate until and unless they were able to retrieve their children from school or day care. If we have two thirds of the population with children that would not comply, what we would have is evacuation chaos and an absolute breakdown of disaster response in circumstances that provided no warning. Under those circumstances, unless we got much better at having well-developed disaster plans that parents were comfortable with, we can anticipate extreme chaos as public officials would be unable to stop parents determined to get their kids.

But of course, the storm hit last night, a Friday night heading into the weekend. People could have left the previous night, especially if schools and businesses were closed yesterday due to the hurricane. It's not like they were waiting around waiting for school to end.

I think there are a variety of reasons:
  1. People have lived through some bad weather before and they think, I survived. Nothing's going to happen to me this time.
  2. People listen to the reports and think, It can't be as bad as they say it will be.
  3. Some people are just plain stupid.

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