Why, for some, there’s no place like home during a hurricane

Why do as many as 30 per cent of people living in the path of a dangerous hurricane ignore calls to evacuate and decide to stay at home instead?

Robert Oakes, a geography researcher at the University of Sussex, is using data collected from previous hurricanes to build a model of how people behave when storms such as Hurricane Sandy in the USA approach and evacuation procedures are invoked.

Data from earlier hurricane events have shown that typically 20-30 per cent of the affected population remains in at risk areas. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called residents not following Hurricane Sandy evacuation orders in his state “stupid and selfish”,  but Robert believes there is a more complex set of reasons to explore.

Robert, in his fourth year of a PhD is researching how differences in how individuals respond to warnings of evacuation in the face of hurricanes combine to give different large-scale patterns of population movement.

As part of his research he has built a computer model of evacuation decisions of residents (based on evidence and interviews collected in Galveston, Texas, where Hurricane Ike hit in 2008) to simulate how people might be influenced by others in a hurricane emergency.  

While some people feel unable to evacuate for health or economic reasons, Robert suspected it was not just the ‘marginalised’ in society who stay behind and place themselves in danger. Other psychological or cultural reasons for ignoring advice include fears for property, thrill-seeking, an aversion to leaving home or refusal to believe expert advice.

Robert says: “I have found evidence of four distinct worldviews concerning evacuation that impact on evacuation decisions. The ‘Citizen’, who respects and obeys authority, and the ‘Pragmatist’, who makes a personal informed decision of the risk are the people most likely to heed evacuation calls, while the ‘Individualist’,  who does not accept expert science or official advice and the ‘Believer’, who relies on God for protection, are most likely to stay put.”

Robert adds: “Evacuation is a hot potato for city mangers, mayors, governors and even the President as they all need to look after the safety of the community while avoiding costly, expensive and politically embarrassing false alarms.  

“The US states may call ‘Mandatory Evacuations’ but there are legal barriers to forcefully removing people from their homes, and this would be an extremely unpopular and potentially dangerous policy.

“Ensuring people receive the correct message about the threat may also be insufficient if people think and value things differently or distrust official sources.

“Evacuation rates can only be increased – and needless deaths avoided – if we understand why people do not evacuate. However it seems probable that some will always choose to take what officials would term a risky option, therefore it may be necessary to account and plan for this minority.”


Notes for Editors

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

View press releases online at: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/newsandevents/


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Last updated: Thursday, 1 November 2012

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