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Please Stop Telling Poor People to Leave Town

Evacuation isn’t an option for everyone

Rebecca Renner
Sep 13, 2018 · 4 min read
CEDAR POINT, NC — SEPTEMBER 12: A sign stating ‘Mandatory Evacuation in Effect’ over the Intercoastal Waterway in advance of Hurricane Florence. Photo by Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty

Hurricane Irma’s winds whipped around my house in Edgewater, Florida. I huddled in my dark walk-in closet, a cramped, hot space I shared with my restless dog and cat. A loud crack overhead made me flinch, and briefly, I wished I had taken my best friend up on her offer to hunker down in someone’s basement across town.

Before deciding to shelter in place, I had toyed with the idea of fleeing to Orlando to stay with a friend — or to the Villages to wait out the storm with my family, my usual evacuation plan. As I considered my options, Irma’s track wobbled to the left, the same direction either idea would take me.

I also had to consider all of the people driving north from mandatory evacuation zones. My friends from Miami and the Keys posted updates on Facebook. They were looking at eight hours on the road, maybe more, to reach Orlando before the storm made landfall. That was double the time it would take under normal circumstances. With so many on the road, traffic was at a standstill. The number of evacuees coming from areas without mandatory evacuation orders, places like where I lived on the east coast of Central Florida, made the congestion even worse.

I realized it would be worse for my friends driving north to be stuck on the interstate when the storm hit than for me to weather it in my concrete block house. So, I stocked up on supplies and prepared to stay put.

Then came the deluge of tweets. Many onlookers demanded that my fellow Floridians and I get out while we still could. Didn’t we know what happened with Hurricane Katrina?

Now, just like last year, armchair meteorologists are saying that residents who fail to leave areas affected by Hurricane Florence just don’t understand the danger. Frankly, that is an elitist mentality. It’s also not that simple.

Armchair meteorologists are saying that residents who fail to leave areas affected by Hurricane Florence just don’t understand the danger. Frankly, that is an elitist mentality.

Cost is a major factor for many people trying to decide whether to evacuate. Last year, the average price of one night’s stay in a hotel room in the U.S. during September was $128.52, according to Statista. If a family squeezed into a single hotel room for three nights, that would add up to $385.56. Many Americans don’t even have $500 in savings, making an unplanned hotel stay a significant financial burden. Add the cost of food and gas, and a family of four could quickly blow through whatever savings they had. Even if they resorted to a high-interest payday loan to cover evacuation expenses, leaving the area might get them fired.

I witnessed this firsthand during Irma. My ex’s employer, a bicycle manufacturer, didn’t give employees the day off until the morning the hurricane approached Central Florida. My ex, an hourly wage worker, chose not to evacuate because he had already used up his vacation days. “According to law experts, a person working a non-union private sector job can be fired for evacuating during a hurricane and not showing up for work,” Mahita Gajanan wrote last year for Time. For many hourly wage workers, losing paid time isn’t an option either. Living paycheck to paycheck leaves little room for catastrophes, even literal ones.

Earlier this week, mandatory evacuation orders were issued for the coastal areas of the Carolinas and Virginia. According to Talk Poverty, in South Carolina, about 15 percent of the state’s population of nearly 5 million lives below the poverty line. Only 11 percent of those people are white. North Carolina’s poverty rates are roughly the same, but with a state population of more than 10 million, it works out to nearly 1.5 million living in poverty. South Carolina and North Carolina rank 42nd and 37th in the nation respectively for overall poverty.

Conversations about those who fail to evacuate usually revolve around the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi. Those two states have the highest poverty rates in the country. Hurricane Katrina killed so many people not because they weren’t smart enough to leave, but because they had nowhere to go and no way to get there.

When people don’t evacuate from mandatory evacuation zones, it isn’t a problem of intelligence or herd mentality. It’s a problem of poverty and resources. We need to treat it as such.

Hurricane Katrina killed so many people not because they weren’t smart enough to leave, but because they had nowhere to go.

Those ordered to evacuate are often asked to make tough decisions that armchair meteorologists who haven’t experienced that level of poverty do not understand. If leaving or staying home are their only options, thousands of poor people are forced to gamble their lives now for their futures later. Especially in an age when shelter and lifesaving medications are at a premium, you may be asking people to risk their lives later, too.

Before you judge those who don’t evacuate from a storm, consider what you’re asking them to do. You’re not asking them to think clearly, to calmly prepare for an emergency. You’re asking them to fix their circumstances, which may be generations, even hundreds of years, in the making.

If you must pepper the internet with advice, at least make it well-informed. Often, the best bet for those who can’t leave their areas is to evacuate to a storm shelter. Many communities offer shuttle services for older or disabled residents. Designated shelters like local schools are a better, if imperfect, option than fleeing across the country on what little money you have — only to lose your job later.

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