If you got notice of an impending disaster heading for your home, would you leave? Could you? Evacuating even under mandatory orders is not something everyone can do.
Hurricane Florence is about to smash into the mid-Atlantic coast, where it’s projected to drop epic rainfall on already saturated ground. Even if the winds slow, the storm surge and floods are going to cause enormous damage and devastate basic infrastructure. If you’re in a mandatory evacuation area, please, please leave while you can. Make this the Great Carolina Exodus fleeing the coasts.
No emergency manager issues an evacuation order lightly. Telling people to leave is a tough call, between the logistics of mass displacement, the increased vulnerability of stabilizing support systems, and loss of public trust if forecasts flop.
But not everyone is leaving.
Not everyone can leave.
In the aftermath of landfall, it might be tempting to condemn the people who stayed behind, but please be gentle. Evacuation, like most disaster resilience actions—and really, like most of life—is easier if you have wealth, health and extensive social networks. Being able to pack up your life and leave takes privileges you may not even realize you have. Everyone is doing the best they can based on their personal context.
It takes money to displace yourself. It takes having somewhere better to go and a way to get there. Having a full tank of gas is a luxury when you live paycheck to paycheck. Spending money up front and then waiting for reimbursement requires that you have the money in the first place, while knowing what expenses are covered and how to file the paperwork requires knowledge not everyone has or has access to.
Missing shifts at work is unthinkable when every dollar counts. Some workplaces keep employees as long as legally possible, more worried about lost profits than lost lives.
Delayed evacuation carries a different risk due to the sheer number of people trying to escape on roads that can barely handle rush hour, much less a mass exodus. People can be trapped in gridlock on the roads, running out of gas—or, worse yet, still be out in the open when the storm comes and the floodwaters rise.
For people in poverty, evacuating means billeting with friends or in reception centers, both of which carry different types of risk that can leave you asking if it’s really the safer choice. It also means leaving your home vulnerable. Yes, it’s “just stuff,” but without insurance, it’s everything you have and everything you need to keep surviving after the storm passed. Those with the least economic resources are often crammed onto the most vulnerable land, exposing them to the worst disasters over and over again while taxing their already limited capacity to survive.
But it’s not just about money.
Vulnerable populations—immigrants, single parents, elderly, people with disabilities, people in poverty—all face unique risks. Evacuating depletes community support during a diaspora, a frightening prospect when the people around you are essential to your survival. It increases stress on elderly, sometimes with fatal consequences: clearing out retirement and homes can actually kill their residents. Yet staying in place and suffering through mass infrastructure failures can do the same thing.
People with disabilities, injuries or illness may require specialized equipment to survive. Without a custom vehicle or assistance from others, it may be literally impossible to evacuate.
Previous personal experience is double-edged: It increases awareness on how to survive, but people downplay the danger, thinking they've handled worse. For Florence, slowing wind speeds are degrading the storm’s power, but the real risk for this particular hurricane will be the water pouring from the skies and surging in from the ocean. And when the hurricane hits, it's often too late, as fleeing becomes riskier than staying.
I get beyond furious about people who ride out storms at “hurricane parties,” treating a deadly disaster as entertainment, but not everyone who stays behind is so flippant. As the rains come and the waters ride, please trust that people made the very best choices they could with the information and resources they had.
Many people may have the worst day of their lives thanks to Florence. But the storm won’t be finished beating them down just because the clouds clear. The aftermath of destruction and recovery will stretch on for months. When that happens, they don't need your disapproval.
People impacted by disasters need you to have empathy. They need you to advocate for preparing for the next disaster while still recovering from this one. They need your support, whether it’s in the form of cash donations; voting for politicians with the integrity to vote for spending money on mitigation before the next disaster rather than on relief afterward; or even sending them cute animal pictures to cheer them up after another long day of cleaning up the mess. They need your help, not your judgement.
As the storm looms, I hope that everyone who can evacuate, does. But for everyone left behind, I understand.