Over one million people have been ordered to evacuate the Carolina coast as Hurricane Florence barrels closer, kicking up winds of 220 km/h as it approaches.
But even as officials repeatedly warn the storm could be the worst the Carolinas have weathered in six decades, don’t expect everyone to heed the evacuation order.
WATCH: Time-lapse video of a NOAA WP-3D Hurricane Hunter flight into Hurricane Florence on Sep. 10, 2018.
What Joshua Behr and his colleagues at Old Dominion University’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center have found is that those likely to suffer the effects of a storm the most are also the ones most likely to stay behind.
Sometimes it’s a question of money, property, or employment, while other times it’s a sense of skewed logic or an unfounded belief that officials are deliberately overhyping the storm’s severity.
“There are many, many reasons why people don’t evacuate,” Behr says.
WATCH: Officials are urging residents of North Carolina to heed the warnings of evacuations as Hurricane Florence bears down on the state.
Researchers have been trying to get a handle on why for quite some time. After all, Behr says, past studies have shown upwards of 60 per cent of the population saying that in the case of a storm, theoretically, they would choose to evacuate.
The reality is quite different: when Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Atlantic coast in 2012, 49 per cent of New Jersey residents who were given mandatory evacuation orders didn’t go. That figure isn’t unique to Hurricane Sandy.
Behr and his team interviewed more than 7,000 households in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, speaking to upwards of 22,000 individuals in the path of Irene, which wound a destructive path through the Caribbean and up the U.S. East Cost, even reaching Canada, in August 2011.
WATCH: FEMA says Hurricane Florence isn’t expected to slowdown before hitting the Carolinas and are planning for “a hard impact” from the Category 4 storm.
They characterize what they found with the term “bounded rationality.” In other words, Behr says, a decision that doesn’t seem rational to a person watching the storm unfold from afar seemed perfectly reasonable to them.
“From that individual’s perspective, it was logical for them to stay.”
Here are some of the reasons people stay:
1. Health and medical reasons
Some people physically can’t evacuate and others still are medically fragile. Leaving is hard when you have a team of doctors and the security of your medical routine, Behr says. “The fear is they leave, get out of town for an extended period of time and they won’t have access to the familiar medical support,” he says.
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This is compounded by shelter offerings, says Cara Cuite, an assistant extension specialist at Rutgers who led a study in 2014 on coastal storm risk communication. Not all shelters are set up to be handicap accessible or to handle special medical equipment.
“That can create challenges for people,” Cuite says, but these are the people who really need to evacuate. “If say there were to be an extended power outage, they really would struggle more than other people.”
2. Family and community
Most people don’t decide whether to evacuate on their own. They talk to family and they talk to friends. In that respect, Behr says, it’s pretty simple: “If your friends and family members are getting out then you’re more likely to get out.”
WATCH: Florence is a category 4 hurricane and it’s heading towards North and South Carolina
It goes further, if you care for an older relative or you’re a caregiver for someone that either can’t or won’t go and you’ve developed a good relationship with that person, you’re also less likely to evacuate. The same goes for the family members of loved ones who work in protective services, like EMS, fire, police, medical.
3. Property protection
Some people just don’t leave because they’re worried about what they own. “There’s a real fear relative to theft,” Behr says. “They feel that if they’re absent the property won’t be managed or watched, will perhaps be looted.”
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That’s also why you sometimes see huge backups while people are evacuating, Behr says. Some people will load up all their less-than-roadworthy camper vans and Sea-Doos and hit the road.
While some people can evacuate secure in the knowledge their job will be there when they return, Behr says that’s not the case for everyone. Two industries, in particular, tend to have employees that stay in the path of the hurricane: the service and construction industry.
In the case of service jobs, Behr says, it’s pretty simple: businesses want to stay open as long as possible to make money off people as they leave and those who are staying behind. So if you work there and you’re your family’s primary breadwinner, you need the money from those extra days.
In the construction industry, Behr says, it’s a slightly different story. Home repair, roofing, auto repair, towing and other related jobs are the ones hurricane-hit areas need immediately as they start to recover and there’s a concern that if you evacuate, officials might not let you back in right away to get back to work.
WATCH: Norfolk, Virgina planning for ‘biblical’ Hurricane Florence
In some cases, Behr says, people reported their boss telling them if they leave when there’s a guarantee of overtime for weeks following the storm, they’ll simply be replaced. “You find a lot of people who are pressured from their work,” he says.
5. Other financial reasons
Some of the people who lived in geographically vulnerable areas stayed because of earning potential, Behr says. Some told researchers that they had the potential to make a couple hundred bucks by clearing debris from evacuated neighbours’ property ahead of their return. Often, Behr says, that was enough of an incentive for people struggling to make rent the day before rent comes due to stay.
Sometimes it’s simply a question of resources, Cuite says. Not everyone has a car or the money for a hotel if they’re worried the shelters won’t have space for them.
One of the more concrete reasons people choose not to evacuate has to do with their fur family, Cuite says. Despite the risk, some people stayed if they didn’t have a plan to evacuate their animals. Although that’s starting to change with new laws that allow for some emergency shelters to welcome pets as well, she says the issue now is making people aware of that.
WATCH: People who abandoned pets ahead of hurricane Irma could face charges
7. Past experience
People’s decisions were shaped by their past experiences with major storms, Behr says. If someone knew a family member or friend who had been injured or suffered some form of lass in a storm they were more inclined to evacuate the area. But, if someone evacuated in the past and it wound up being “a close call or a near miss,” then they often wouldn’t evacuate again because $1,500 or more of debt for a near miss was too much of a financial penalty.
Similarly, Cuite says, if they evacuated before and found it to be an uncomfortable experience they’ll likely stay the next time whereas if they stayed and it was a difficult experience they’ll likely evacuate.
“Past experience can impact it in both directions,” she says.
8. Their risk perception
A key factor in whether someone chose to evacuate or stay was their perception of the risk, Behr says. People could live on the same block or in the same building and have a markedly different sense of how dangerous the approaching hurricane was.
He remembers doing interviews with someone on the first floor of an apartment building who felt they were safer than their neighbours because the wind wouldn’t get them. Then, he’d go up to the second or fifth or 10th floor and the person would feel safer than their neighbour because they couldn’t be flooded so high up.
“There’s a sense of efficacy,” Behr says, and “people would rationalize.”
9. Message discounting
Of course, Behr says, some people chose not to evacuate because they didn’t trust the information they were getting. The researchers dubbed this “message discounting.” It isn’t just about the media and so-called fake news, he says.
“People we interviewed insisted on there being a conspiracy on behalf of officials,” Behr says. There’s this idea that weather experts, government officials, and the media were all trying to increase people’s anxiety deliberately because “they wanted to socially engineer your behaviour.” That was most often the reason in households where people deferred to men’s opinions, he says.
This is one area where communication is key, Cuite says.
WATCH: Virginia governor explains preparations made for Hurricane Florence
“The communicators are trying to walk a fine line between making sure people are taking this seriously without overblowing or overstating the likely impacts of the storm,” she says.
People tend to be more responsive to “some scary language,” she says, but cry wolf and you risk people discounting the warnings in the future.
— with a file from The Associated Press