Why Some Residents Chose to Ride Out Hurricane Ike

As Hurricane Ike roared toward the Texas coast last week, Dennis Covington decided to disregard mandatory evacuation orders and stay put in his house in Port Bolivar, just east of Galveston. He figured the building was structurally sound enough to withstand the storm, but he soon regretted his choice. As Ike made landfall, a wall of water tore free a boat and crashed it into a piling under his home. The piling fractured, the house split in two and one half collapsed into the water. Covington was lucky enough to be on the side that remained standing; his little terrier, Lizzie, however, was on the other. "I just had to watch her go," he recalled later, burying his head in his hands and weeping. Fearing for his life as the water rose, he grabbed a life preserver, jumped out of the window and climbed up a tree, to which he lashed himself with a rope. "I was in that tree from the time the eye came until the back of the storm—a couple of hours," he said. Afterward, he was disconsolate over his loss. "This is all I own now," he said, gesturing at his jeans, his tattered green T shirt and the soggy red towel draped around his neck.

Covington was one of many who chose to ride out the storm. On hard-hit Galveston Island, some 20,000 people out of a total population of 57,000 ignored or were unable to comply with evacuation orders. Across Texas and Louisiana as a whole, about 100,000 stayed behind in coastal areas, compared to more than 2 million who sought shelter inland. For those who remained, the aftermath has been dismal—block after block of destroyed houses; no power, water or food supplies; and rank refuse piled up everywhere. Which raises the question: Why do people stay when they're told to leave? Is it out of necessity, or ignorance, or foolhardiness? Numerous researchers have studied the issue over the years, and their findings help open a window onto the psychology of holdouts.

There are, of course, some obvious reasons why people stay behind. The elderly and infirm may be too fragile to withstand an evacuation. The poor, as the nation saw during Hurricane Katrina, may not have the means to escape—no car, no relatives to stay with or no money to pay for a hotel room. In addition, "[the poor] can't skip three days of work, especially if [the storm] isn't as bad as forecasted and they are missing their job," says Rebecca Morss, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who studies the ways people use and interpret weather information. In other cases, people have legitimate concerns about the security of their homes and possessions, says Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health: "All of these are appropriate rationales at some level."

Beyond these reasons, though, people's motivations get murkier. George Everly Jr., a disaster psychologist at John Hopkins University, says that people often simply avoid reality. "A pending disaster challenges our daily routine, and people use denial, saying, 'I just want to live my life, and I don't want anything to disrupt that'," he says. "It is our natural inclination to resist and deny." Others may be thrill-seekers, according to Redlener: "There is a category of adventurers who revel in significant risk-taking, people for whom the adrenaline rush of facing such danger is worth the potential that one may pay the ultimate price." He adds another category: "independent-minded citizens who simply do not tolerate being ordered to do anything by government officials."

A community's culture also plays a role. People in areas that have endured repeated thrashings by natural disasters may develop a measure of stoicism and defiance as part of their identity. "Galveston has a similar subculture to Key West, [Fla.], that 'we can ride it out, we've seen everything' attitude," says Morss. You can hear hints of that in what Rev. Harold Block, who remained in Galveston during Ike, had to say about the experience afterward. "I was born and raised here," he said. "I came through storms and hurricanes as a child. I even rode through [Hurricanes] Carla and Alicia [in 1961 and 1983]."

The decisions people make are also often governed by their most recent memories and experiences. "Those people that watched Katrina, theoretically, are more prone to leaving," says Redlener. "And those who rode out [Hurricane] Gustav or evacuated and everything was fine are going to be more prone to stay." Everly concurs: If you stayed behind and "your damage was minimal, you are psychologically high-fiving yourself and telling yourself, 'Good choice! I played the game and I won.' On the other hand, if you almost drowned, almost died and your house was sucked away, you're saying, 'I'm not going to do that again.'" This time around, many of those NEWSWEEK spoke with who stayed behind cited as a reason their experiences during Hurricane Rita in 2005, when horrendous traffic jams made the evacuation potentially more hazardous than the storm.

Such short-term thinking poses challenges for public officials, who constantly struggle with offering an accurate description of the perils at hand and at the same time ensuring that people don't become complacent. The key, say researchers, is to retain credibility. In the buildup to Gustav, Mayor Ray Nagin struck an alarmist tone, describing the coming hurricane as "the mother of all storms." That, along with the fresh memory of Katrina, jolted the public, which evacuated en masse. But given that Gustav proved to be relatively weak, will residents trust the mayor's assessment next time? With Ike, the National Weather Service created a stir when it asserted that those who failed to heed evacuation orders in the coastal zone would face "certain death." "If you say it, you have to be right," says Everly. "If it doesn't happen, then it works against you rather than for you. People will think, 'It didn't happen last time he said that.' … 'Certain death' is a very powerful message. You sure as heck better be right."

Beyond language, leaders can also wield their authority, of course. And in recent years, lawmakers in many states have granted officials additional powers to enforce evacuation orders. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Center for Law and the Public's Health, a joint venture of Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities, set out to help states revise their laws to handle disasters more effectively. It proposed the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, which included portions addressing mandatory evacuations and curfews to control the movement of the population. So far, 37 state legislatures have adopted the proposal in part or in whole, according to Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who co-authored the model regulations. Moreover, says Redlener, the trend among state and local officials is toward taking a harder line against recalcitrant residents. Authorities are ordering holdouts to stay on their property, threatening them with arrest if they step off it or violate curfew, and making clear that first-responder services won't be guaranteed in case of emergency.

That said, there are limits to what the government can do. It can't typically "forcibly remove property owners, even under risk of death," says James Hodge, Jr., an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University who also worked on the model act. "The government may be able to do that when your remaining presents a significant risk to others." But he says such scenarios would more likely involve communicable diseases than hurricanes. Vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly and the disabled, are another matter, however. "Children are considered wards of the state and are much different than autonomous adults," he says. "The government has full authority." Hodge and others think it's conceivable that one day, parents could be charged with endangering their children for ignoring evacuation orders. Redlener says that "goes beyond individual adults putting themselves at risk."

In some cases, of course, as Covington can attest, the pain of having acted in a way that may have contributed to the loss or injury of a loved one is surely punishment enough.