US News, The Environment, News

Why some people don’t evacuate in the wake of natural disaster

Don't criticize, empathize.

In 2012, in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, my family had to evacuate from our little shore town in New Jersey. It involved a lot of preparation, a lot of bottled waters, and a lot of where the hell are we going to stay? My family went through waves of financial struggle, and while we weren’t going through the hardest times of our life, we definitely weren’t the best off. We ultimately ended up staying with a coworker of my mother, in a home slightly more inland. A tornado ripped through the shopping complex two blocks away, but we were left unscathed.

When the storm had passed, we waited for the opportunity to go home. Due to a sewage leak, it took a week. During that time, my family essentially got a little vacation. We stayed in a hotel with a kitchenette and a pool that my younger siblings loved. My teenage self was agitated, having to share a small space with my family. However, that truly was the worst of it. At the end of the day, FEMA footed our hotel bill and we went back to a home that had zero damage.

We got out with the best possible outcome: a few days off of school and some mopping in the garage. After a week, it was like the hurricane had never happened. We’re lucky.

There are too many reasons why people stay behind. Ultimately, it is because they’ve been left behind in life. Click To Tweet

Our circumstances made it possible for us to make it out in time. This isn’t always the case for everyone, and it’s not for the reasons you’d normally think. Those who don’t escape hurricanes aren’t stupid, ignorant or bullheaded: they’re vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Some of the most exposed communities are those that are economically underprivileged. When you are vulnerable in this way, you cannot afford to miss a day of work, and you especially cannot afford to lose your job. Many employers do not close until the very last moment, and that is too late to escape. As a hurricane approaches land, the storm surge begins. This is when flooding starts, and this can happen hours before the storm hits land. People may think they have more time to evacuate, but then the routes they need to get out are flooded.

There is also the financial burden of finding shelter, or even escaping. Not everyone can get in a car and drive to higher ground. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, putting out the money for a hotel in a safe area may entirely impossible. Even though price-gouging during a state of emergency is illegal, how can one assure that they can find a room in time to meet the state of emergency deadline?

Those who don’t escape hurricanes largely aren’t stupid, ignorant or bullheaded. They’re vulnerable and disadvantaged. Click To Tweet

Those who need regular medical care are some of the most disadvantaged when it comes to hurricanes. If they cannot evacuate in time, they are stuck in situations where their health could quickly deteriorate. If someone is on dialysis and cannot access power or a hospital, they end up in detrimental circumstances. This is the same for those who require prescriptions but cannot access a pharmacy. Often, the elderly are left behind and forced to fend for themselves.

There are also those who are in the care of the state. Prisoners historically have not been evacuated during natural disasters, and continue to be at risk. Prisons were not evacuated during Hurricane Florence. This situation came to an all-time low during Hurricane Katrina. Guards evacuated the facilities and left inmates trapped in cells full of chest-high flood water, without food or power. Those held in prison facilities aren’t always proven guilty as well, as many can be awaiting trial but unable to make bail. But no matter the crime, the law of the land dictates humane treatment, and this is not it. Most prisons have disaster plans set in place just in case something does happen, but this is not a requirement of the state. The infamous Rikers Island, home of over 12,000 inmates, doesn’t have one.

If you’re struggling to make ends meet, putting out the money for a hotel in a safe area may be entirely impossible. Click To Tweet

Folks behind bars, innocent or not, aren’t thought of. There is the argument that moving inmates is a dangerous and difficult task, but it is a necessary challenge to overcome. These people deserve dignity, and that begins with the knowledge that they will be safe to ride out storms.

There are too many reasons why people stay behind. Ultimately, it is because they’ve been left behind in life. We must extend compassion towards these people and aid them if we can. So next time you see someone claiming that folks should “just leave”, you know the real reason why the stay.