Why Do Some People Ignore Evacuation Warnings?

Less than two weeks after Hurricane Gustav barreled across Louisiana, Hurricane Ike is now bearing down on the Texas coast. The storm traced a lethal path through the Caribbean, resulting in about 70 deaths in Haiti and seven in Cuba. On Friday afternoon, Ike was a Category 2 tempest, with winds of 105 miles per hour and a massive diameter that stretched across most of the Gulf of Mexico. It's expected to make landfall near Galveston, Texas, in the early hours of Saturday, potentially as a Category 3 storm with winds between 111 and 130mph. With reports of a coastal storm surge that could exceed 20 feet in some places, state and local authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation of Galveston and other low-lying areas. Yet, as always, some people vowed to stay put. To learn more about the psychology of holdouts and how officials are adapting their response to them, NEWSWEEK's Catharine Skipp spoke to Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and associate dean for public-health advocacy and disaster preparedness at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: With the approach of Hurricane Ike and similarly with Hurricane Gustav, we are hearing officials using the phrase "certain death." Why haven't we heard the widespread use of this phrase in the past in connection with dangerous storms?
Irwin Redlener:
What we are dealing with now is a greater awareness of the legal potential of natural disasters. Post-9/11, the level of sensitivity about our vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters has been ratcheted up significantly, particularly following [Hurricane] Katrina. I think there is a level of awareness around the potential danger of large-scale coastal storms and hurricanes and it has been a wake-up call, and more so after the flagrantly inadequate response to Katrina in 2005. It lit a fire under disaster-preparedness officials. The rhetoric, which we even heard from Mayor [Ray] Nagin when he was strongly urging people to leave New Orleans before [Hurricane] Gustav, is continuing as officials are putting out public messages to residents of the vulnerable coast of Texas. What's behind this is the realization that many, many people electively choose not to comply with official orders of mandatory evacuation and intend to stay in place no matter what the warnings are. Many of these people are putting themselves at an extreme level of risk depending on the trajectory of the hurricane.

Are we hearing stronger language by federal, state and local officials in an attempt to scare people into evacuating?
Absolutely. What we've found is that being hesitant about the communication messages or using softer language doesn't work. It is not that the risk is different, it's the message is being forcefully delivered in an attempt to absolutely minimize the number of people that stay behind. There are a couple of considerations when a public official determines that the hardest possible language is going to be used. He or she is hoping that strongest message will get the most people to safety. On the other hand, there is the "crying wolf" phenomenon. They are taking a chance that if the conditions are not as dire as anticipated, that the next time there will be a great reluctance to heed those warnings. The other issue is that officials were so badly burned by the Katrina debacle that the other part is the pendulum swing to much more planning and aggressive public messages.

Can mandatory evacuation orders be legally enforced?
Theoretically, they could physically remove someone, especially if their remaining would endanger anyone else's safety and especially [that of] first responders. But the strategy that officials may use, rather than arresting the recalcitrant citizen, is to make it very clear—absolutely clear—that rescue and response services may not be available. In essence, if you don't comply with evacuation orders, you are in effect waiving your right to get rescue and response if you need it. I think we will see much more of that strategy being deployed than officials removing people that don't want to go.

Can you talk a little about the evolution of evacuations?
We have very little experience in the U.S. with mass migrations, particularly those that are officially ordered. In the 1930s, there was a large self-evacuation during the Dust Bowl experience. That was an enormous migration of people, but not in an organized way. The scale of evacuations, such as the ones we are currently seeing, is unprecedented in modern American history. The fact that nearly 2 million people were evacuated as Gustav was bearing down was an extraordinary and unusual event.

When we are talking about preparedness and helping people survive a natural disaster, a well-executed evacuation is step one. What we are still not clear about is what happens after the evacuation. Under circumstances where 1.9 million people are dislocated from their homes and communities, some will be able to return and some won't. For example, although there was not much flooding by Gustav in Louisiana, thousands of homes were severely damaged. There are questions as to how and where to shelter people, how long they will be there and when can they return to some normal state. These are all unanswered questions at this point. As it is, right before Gustav hit, we were still dealing with tens of thousands of children still displaced post-Katrina, and I am very concerned about the status of those children and families in relationship to the lasting trauma of a second event and a second displacement.

What kind of person stays?
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.

Should there be an accompanying scale for coastal surge, like a Saffir-Simpson scale for flooding?
There are a number of factors that should be considered: a much more nuanced scale that includes not only force—the category designation of the storms—but degree of risk of coastal flooding, a risk of tidal wave, and you could make a case to include things like stability of levees or other social-risk factors. For instance, if a large part of the population at risk is economically disadvantaged, with little access to private vehicles and borderline access to public transportation, these social factors increase risk and make public officials and citizens behave differently. The storm force is insufficient for someone to make a judgment as to whether to leave or not. Katrina was a Category 4 or 5 in the Gulf and a 2 or 3 when it hit the Gulf Coast. But it covered an enormous area. While the force had diminished in power, it was massively destructive, as we know.