WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Why Do People Stay?

Posted September 12, 2008

As a former resident of southeast Texas, I've been watching a lot of the live coverage from the Houston and Galveston areas throughout the day today.  In spite of all the warnings -- the National Weather Service's saying folks who stay are facing the possibility of "certain death", specific breakdowns of what horrors are in store, mandatory evacuations, and so on -- there are still people planning to ride out the storm on Galveston Island. 

The forecast bottom line: if Ike continues on its forecast path, Galveston Island will be under water by Saturday morning.  Storm surge, 100mph winds, and waves 10-15' on top of the surge will cause widespread destruction, and very likely, death.

So, in the face of all of that, people have been asking me all day: "Why do people stay?"  Unfortunately, that's a big question with a very complex set of answers. 

From past storms, we have an idea of some of the reasons people give for staying:

  • They can't leave -- they have no car, they're disabled, etc
  • They think they don't have any place to go-- no family, can't afford a hotel, scared of shelters, etc.
  • They don't want to leave their stuff.  (Fear of looting plays into that here.)
  • They don't want to be prevented from coming back to their homes after it's over.
  • They're attached to their land.  (This is hard to understand in today's very mobile society, but it's there and a very real factor.)
  • They think evacuating is inconvenient.  (Think the logjams of rush hour for a day or more.)
  • They think evacuating is dangerous.
  • They've ridden out storms before and were fine.
  • And so on...

I'm quite sure some of these reasons sound good a few days out, when the skies are blue and the seas are calm, and to be sure, nearly all of those reasons are grounded in at least some truth.  Take the "danger of evacuating" reason for example.  More than a dozen people were killed trying to flee the Houston/Galveston area fro Rita, and in the end, Rita nearly bypassed that area entirely.

Factor into these reasons the possibility of misunderstandings and the like, and you've got a recipe for utter disaster.  I watched local coverage from Houston this morning when a news crew approached some folks on the island and basically begged them to evacuate.  His response: "I evacuated from Rita, and it was a pain.  When I came back, all my stuff was fine.  Rita wasn't all that bad -- and this one isn't any worse -- so I'll take my chances."  The problem with his analysis is that while Rita was forecast to landfall near Galveston, it actually came on shore in Louisiana -- nearly 200 miles away.  Had Rita followed the forecast or had he ridden out Rita where it actually came onshore, his take on this might be different.

All of this said -- and whether these reasons are based in some truth or complicated by misconceptions or misunderstandings -- merely sounding like a good idea isn't going to cut it.  The "it sounded like a good idea at the time" line has been used to justify a lot of truly bad ideas throughout history, and not leaving the island and coastal areas ahead of Ike definitely qualifies as a bad idea, in my opinion.

The question of why people chose not to evacuate, even in the face of certain disaster, is one of the biggest challenges we face in the meteorological community, and it's one of the reasons why efforts to blur the lines between meteorology and social science are so important.  We have so much work to do in order to solve so many of the problems above -- the real problems and the misconceptions surrounding storms, their effects, and how people perceive their own personal risk, among other things -- so that when faced with this kind of decision, people take action to reduce their risk and stay safe.

Until then, thoughts and prayers are with the folks in southeast Texas, and especially those who -- for whatever reason -- opted to stay on Galveston Island.   They're going to need it, because it's going to be a long, very long night.

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