Why Some People Don’t Leave Before a Hurricane

When disasters hit various parts of the country throughout the year, you probably hear a lot about emergency evacuations. Officials spend a lot of time and energy encouraging residents in affected areas to leave, and giving suggestions to make it easier to do so.

This is because not everyone being asked to leave an area in the path of a disaster actually leaves — despite the many potential dangers of staying. And the reasons behind this might surprise you.

Here’s why mandatory evacuations aren’t usually enforced — and why many people don’t pack up and leave when they are ordered to do so.

Why aren’t mandatory evacuations mandatory?

Dog rescue flooding

Dog rescue flooding | YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images

Mandatory evacuations are put in place to preserve the lives of as many residents and first responders as possible. However, they aren’t technically “mandatory” — at least, they aren’t usually legally enforced. A mass arrest of residents who refused to leave an area just wouldn’t be practical.

Those who choose to ignore mandatory evacuations are left to their own devices. First responders and other officials won’t risk their own lives to respond to emergency calls in evacuated areas.

The best officials can often do is warn residents that if they don’t evacuate when ordered to do so, there won’t be any means of rescue available when or even after the disaster hits.

How authorities (try to) convince people to leave

Officials must practice what The Washington Post calls “good risk communication” when informing residents in evacuation zones where and when to go. This isn’t an easy feat. Authorities want to keep people safe, but the wrong messaging could end up putting more lives at risk.

Using fear to motivate people to leave, for example, can work — but not if the messages used are too strong. In that case, many people start to feel what they’re being told has been blown out of proportion, and they’re less likely to abide by the order.

People also need to know if they live in the evacuation zone being ordered to leave. Officials try to clearly communicate exactly which areas need to go and which are safe to stay put. Unfortunately, if people evacuate when they don’t actually need to, this puts more lives at risk because it could increase traffic out of the area and take up limited room in shelters.

Refusing mandatory evacuation: Why some won’t go

Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Research surveys suggest that people decide to stay in evacuation zones for a number of reasons. Some people don’t have a choice. Others don’t want to leave what they love behind.

Pets. Many people don’t know what to do with their nonhuman companions when ordered to evacuate. Experts recommend having a plan for where you can house your pets in case of evacuation. If family and friends can’t do it, a shelter or clinic might be able to help.

Fear for their homes. A lot of people refuse to leave because they’re afraid something is going to happen to their home — e.g., looting. Others don’t want to leave their stuff behind.

Disabilities. If someone is unable to leave their home due to a disability, it’s likely because they don’t have anyone to help them do so. FEMA offers disaster preparedness suggestions for people with a range of disabilities.

A false sense of security. People who have experienced a natural disaster such as a hurricane before without major issues are much more likely to assume they won’t run into problems this time around, either.

A “really good plan.” Disaster preparedness is a smart, potentially life-saving strategy to have in place whether you live in an area prone to natural disasters or not. But if you’re relying on a Plan B, you could end up waiting too long — and that’s not good for anyone involved.

Money and transportation. People living in poverty face a multitude of disadvantages, and approaching storms are no exception. If someone doesn’t have immediate access to a car, gas, or funds to afford a place to stay — and no way to leave — they might just decide to stay, even if they know it’s risky.

Procrastination. Some people wait until it’s too late to decide whether or not they’re going to leave. When Hurricane Florence approached the Northeast, officials told residents, “If you wait until conditions get bad, it may be too late to get out safely, and you also put first responders at risk.”