Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Police Deputy Rick Swain looks for stranded residents after tropical storm Debby hit Florida in June 2012. Photo by Vragovic, Will/ZUMA Press/Corbis

Facing Down a Hurricane

New research explains why so many people ignore evacuation notices.

Authored by

by Laura Dattaro

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It’s a sunny day and a breeze rustles the leaves on the bushes in your front yard. You walk down to the beach—it’s only a few blocks away—and off in the distance wispy white clouds streak the otherwise blue sky. You check the news on your phone. The police are telling everyone in your neighborhood to evacuate. There’s a hurricane coming. Do you go?

For many residents living in coastal towns, the answer remains a stubborn no. In a study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, researchers found that only 58 percent of people living in coastal Connecticut were likely to evacuate after getting an official notice to do so. About a third reported that they feel it’s safer to stay home during a Category 2 hurricane, when winds reach up to 177 kilometers per hour, than it would be to leave.

But staying behind in a hurricane is risky. If roads flood, residents can be trapped in their homes. And emergency rescuers face unnecessary danger trying to help those who stayed behind. The Yale study also found that 52 percent of people who have lived through storms thought the resulting damage was worse than they expected.

So why do people stay? That depends on the person, says Jennifer Marlon, who led the study. Some people worry that their homes will be looted if they leave. Others wait too long to get out, and then find they have nowhere to go. Some are independent to a fault, believing they know better than officials and can best protect their homes, their possessions, and themselves by staying put. There’s even a severe weather phobia, which can cause panic attacks and render sufferers incapable of action.

“Those are completely different types of people you’ll find among the public, and they really need different support, different messages,” Marlon says. “If we’re trying to communicate when a storm is coming, we need to know: who are these groups?”

Many people also misunderstand what kind of damage a storm can cause, Marlon says. They often think that wind poses the biggest threat during a hurricane, when in reality it’s water. That reveals one easy thing officials can do: explain not just that you have to leave, but why.

Other studies point to additional ways to improve storm risk communication. A 2012 review of previously published papers, for example, found that when communicators prod residents to imagine the negative feelings that come with a natural disaster, the risk feels more concrete. It also suggests involving residents in designing and testing town emergency plans, or participating in an exercise, to boost trust in local authorities. This involvement also helps remove the false assumption that emergency responders will handle everything and that no action from average Joe is required.

In Greenwich, Connecticut, a coastal town of 61,000 that’s experiencing increased incidence of flooding from rising sea levels, planners are using data-driven computer mapping to show where extreme flooding is most likely to occur, right down to individual homes. According to a document from town planners, the hope is that they’ll help people who haven’t personally experienced a severe storm better understand their risk. Crucially, it also helps emergency responders better understand who’s really at risk, Town Hall Conservation Director Denise Savageau wrote in the report, “so as not to appear to ‘cry wolf’ with evacuating folks that do not need to be evacuated.”

In the North Atlantic, hurricane season is now on. With any luck, even the most stubborn homeowners will get out of the way when the next storm hits.