Hurricanes and Uncertainty: The real reasons why people stay rather than evacuate

A few days ago, Hurricane Florence roared into the Carolinas causing flooding, mayhem and some misunderstandings about the psychology of evacuations. As a former psychology professor myself, and one who has lived on the Carolina coast for more than thirty years, and who has had evacuated – and not evacuated — from many storms, I was intrigued to read a Fox News Opinion by Michigan professor Daryl Van Tongeren. While acknowledging that there are many factors involved in a decision not to evacuate, Van Tongeren mentions Terror Management Theory; that we minimize the prospect of death by showing we’re not afraid of danger, as a reason why people choose to stay rather than leave.

I suspect that there are a few who show this bravado, but I seriously doubt that Terror Management is the reason why the vast majority of people stay in the projected path of a storm. In my experience there are two main reasons why people stay and they reflect today’s main concerns: money and stress. And if there’s a psychological mechanism involved, it’s confirmation bias.

The fact is that we all want control over our lives – not just death. And the reality is we don’t have it. In fact, an oncoming hurricane is a wonderful metaphor for life itself; full of uncertainty and potential danger.

So you’re told that there’s a dangerous storm headed your way. Evacuation orders are issued. Businesses close and now you’ve lost a week’s income, if not more. You also have to leave town and take your animals too, which could be a problem if you have something more than a cat and a dog, like a horse, goat or chickens. Many people stay to protect their animals should danger arise.

If you do evacuate, you have to find a place to stay, which in a big storm that threatens more than one state, could be at least a couple of hundred miles away. If you’re going, you’ll probably be gone for at least three days, if not more, resulting in a bill of several hundred dollars and even more if you’re lucky to have found a pet friendly hotel.

There’s also a good chance that you’ll be stuck in traffic for hours. In a storm that threatened much of the southeast coast a few years ago, there was traffic gridlock for hours on some interstates, where restaurants ran out of food and toilets no longer worked, compounding the misery – and stress — for thousands of evacuees. Moreover, once you have left town, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to get back in while an evacuation order is still in effect, resulting in more frustration and unnecessary expense.

So, evacuation could cost as much as several hundred dollars, which many people don’t have and subject them to extreme stress. And a storm impact in your area is just a possibility. What would you do?

For experienced storm watchers, the typical thought process is to weigh the odds. If a big storm is coming right at you, you’ll probably leave, if you can afford it. We did that for Hurricane Hugo, the massive storm that was headed straight for us, when we left very early in the morning. By the time we arrived in our hotel in Columbia, the storm had shifted and was headed north towards Charleston. The storm actually crashed through Columbia late at night, knocking out the power. We left the next day, being fortunate enough to find an open gas station, and arrived home to find barely a downed tree limb. Some wiser friends decided, accurately, that Columbia was too near the storm and opted for the safer confines of Charlotte, North Carolina. Except they were trapped there for a week as the city saw unprecedented flooding.

If there’s some doubt, you will wait. Typically, mandatory evacuation orders are given well in advance of a storm’s arrival, typically 72-96 hours in advance. So, the experienced have learned to wait and see. Let the first evacuees leave. You still have at least another 48 hours to decide what to do, and then you can base your decision on more updated, and more accurate, forecasting.

We have done that on four occasions: twice we left and twice we stayed. The twice we stayed were good decisions as they were no storm impacts at all in our area. One time we left, we learned soon after, that the storm wasn’t going to hit us but we couldn’t get back and had to continue on an unnecessary evacuation. The other time, there was some minor flooding but many neighbors stayed and spent a couple of days cleaning out their garages that had typically received two feet of water; houses in our area are actually built up 15 feet, so there was no risk of flooding to the actual house.

We know from cognitive neuroscience that having made a decision, we will seek evidence that it is the right one and ignore evidence against it – so-called confirmation bias. This goes for life in general. And when life is so uncertain, the fact is we don’t know until events unfold. Then our hindsight bias takes effect and we can once again blame others for a poor decision, or congratulate ourselves on a good one.

It’s not bravado that determines whether to evacuate from a storm or not, it’s simple practicalities and trying to determine the probabilities and what they mean. And humans aren’t very good at that.

We want certainty when there is none.