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Glenn McGillivray is managing director at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction

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Houses sit in floodwater caused by Hurricane Florence in this aerial picture of the outskirts of Lumberton, N.C., Sept. 17, 2018.Jason Miczek/Reuters

As a result of Hurricane Florence, more than 1,000 people in the Carolinas have had to be plucked from homes, rooftops and partially submerged vehicles. This, even after residents were told to leave well ahead of time.

This taxes first responders and puts lives directly at risk – both those of rescuers and rescuees. This is a prevalent problem in many natural hazard situations and doesn’t seem to be limited to any particular country.

There are several reasons why people may not leave an at-risk area, even when they are given ample time to do so.

First and foremost, not everyone has the physical ability or financial resources to be able to leave, as much as they may want to. This was underscored with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, La., where the majority of those who stayed and perished were elderly, low-income African-Americans.

One study of New Orleanians who evacuated to Houston after the storm (93 per cent of whom were African-American) found that often there were multiple reasons why people didn’t leave: Twenty-two per cent were physically unable to evacuate on their own; 14 per cent were physically disabled; 23 per cent stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person; 25 per cent were suffering from a chronic disease; 55 per cent did not have a car or a way to evacuate; 68 per cent had neither money in the bank nor a usable credit card; 57 per cent had total household incomes of less than US$20,000 in the prior year, and 76 per cent had children under 18 with them while in the shelter.

Another common theme when considering failure to evacuate is that people often do not understand or appreciate the nature of the hazard or of the risk. When asked why they aren’t evacuating common reasons include “I’ve been through a few of these, no problem,” “I’ve lived here for x years and we’ve never had anything bad happen,” “I know the area well,” and “I have a brick house, I’ll be okay.” Another popular reason for staying is fear that the property may be looted while the owner is away.

As for risk, many in the Carolinas focused too much on a Saffir-Simpson rating of the intensity of a hurricane (believing that risk dissipated each time the storm was downgraded), and not enough on the storm surge and rainfall warnings that accompany hurricanes. But Florence was never really about the wind; it was about the water. All too many realize that now.

However, one of the big challenges with getting people to act on evacuation orders has to do with how humans are hard-wired.

“Lack of preparation, research shows, is caused by cognitive biases that lead people to underplay warnings and make poor decisions, even when they have the information they need.” Robert J. Meyer, the co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, wrote in a recent Washington Post essay.

The research shows that even when events were accurately forecast, and that people believed the forecasts, the “cognitive bias of excessive optimism kicked in.” This is a complex way of saying that while people knew the storm was coming they still convinced themselves that it wouldn’t affect them. Herd thinking (seeing that others around them are not preparing either) then compounds the problem further. Myopia, the focusing on immediate real costs over potential “what if” costs, further clouds decision-making. Amnesia (forgetting past experiences), inertia (being unsure of what to do, so doing nothing) and simplification (doing one or two things on a much longer list then considering oneself ready) are other psychological factors that further muddy perceptions and, thus, limit actions.

So first, we have to ensure that two fairly different discussions take place with the two very different groups: Those who do not have the resources to evacuate on their own, and those who do but opt to stay for non-economic reasons.

Second, now that we recognize why individuals don’t take measures to prepare and to evacuate, we can avoid repeating mistakes and work to draft strategies that will help people get around their cognitive biases.

We must do an even better job of issuing evacuation orders, including using proper language and communications channels to ensure that both coverage and comprehension is optimal. Further, research indicates that where citizens had confidence in the emergency management agency in charge and where there is good knowledge of local disaster response plans, compliance with evacuation orders is high. We have to improve agency reputation (where necessary), communications and education in these areas as well.

People are dying, and they shouldn’t. We must do better.

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