Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What does it take to get people to flee a storm?

NEW YORK — Despite days of dire forecasts and explicit warnings, hundreds of thousands of people in New York and New Jersey ignored mandatory evacuation orders as Superstorm Sandy closed in. Now, after scores of deaths and harrowing escapes, emergency officials will look at what more can be done to persuade residents to get out when their lives are in danger.

"The issue of those who either can't or won't abide by those orders — that is a question that we have to address," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a recent tour of ravaged Staten Island.

The same troubling pattern has been seen in previous storms, and the ideas tried across the country include stern warnings about the dangers of staying behind, moral appeals not to imperil rescuers, scary ads, and laws that threaten fines or jail time. And yet many people refuse to leave, and some come to regret it — if they survive.

"Staying there was the stupidest thing I've ever done," acknowledged Steve Shapiro, a 55-year-old Staten Island resident who saw Sandy's surge lift nearby houses off their foundations. Two of his neighbors, a 13-year-old girl and her 55-year-old father, died when the rushing water destroyed their house.

Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz said officials should work to make sure residents feel safe in shelters and feel confident their homes will be safeguarded in their absence.

But to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it's a matter of changing minds, not tactics.

"People have got to start learning that when we say something, we mean it," he said.

Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 and left others stranded for days on roofs, in attics and on streets in flooded New Orleans in 2005, starkly illustrated to the rest of the country the importance of getting out.

Often, though, people think a storm won't be so bad or that their homes are built tough enough. Some want to avoid shelters or the expense of staying in a hotel. Still others worry that their homes will be looted.

Florida State University professor Jay Baker, who has studied the subject for decades, said it is not unusual for one-third to half of all residents to defy mandatory evacuation orders, especially in places that haven't been hit hard recently.

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