Stories

Don’t blame Irene

Many New Yorkers ignored evacuation orders as Sandy approached — but hurricane experts say past false alarms had little to do with it

The Dresch family, from Tottenville on Staten Island, followed city orders to evacuate before the arrival of Hurricane Irene last year, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg had called “a matter of life and death.”

The weather didn’t live up to the hype, and the Dresch home was burglarized after they left. So despite the mayor’s evacuation orders issued before superstorm Sandy last week, they stayed put.

Staten Island saw 19 fatalities after many residents in evacuation areas attempted to ride out superstorm Sandy at home. Photo: Nathaniel Herz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the wind and water arrived Monday night, their house was knocked off its foundation, and George Dresch, 55, and Angela Dresch, 13, were both found dead in the days after the storm.

Stories like theirs in the storm’s wake have offered tragic evidence for what emergency managers call the “false-alarm” or “cry wolf” effect — when residents of an at-risk area shrug off evacuation orders because previous commands had turned out to be unjustified. Shelter numbers are another indication: some 6,100 people took refuge during Sandy in the emergency centers offered by the city, versus 9,600 as Irene approached.

Yet the number of people who took to the shelters in either storm made up a fraction of the 375,000 who live in the mandatory evacuation zone. And hurricane experts interviewed by The New York World said that there’s little historical evidence indicating a false-alarm effect exists.

Preliminary data from a consortium of scholars who surveyed hundreds of residents of New York, New Jersey and other areas in advance of Irene and Sandy also reveals little difference in the number of residents that took basic actions to prepare for the two storms, like buying extra food and water. (Their analysis of the more critical evacuation data is not yet complete.)

“In terms of routine preparations, there’s basically no difference — it’s exactly the same,” said Robert Meyer, a professor and co-director of the Wharton School’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. “There was no evidence of the experience of Irene reducing preparations for Sandy.”

Jay Baker, a consortium member at Florida State University, has done storm research for more than three decades and said that past surveys have shown that false alarms like the pre-Irene warnings don’t discourage future evacuations.

He has studied a series of 1980s Florida hurricanes to see how preparations varied from one to the next. The first, Elena, arrived in 1985, and prompted an advance evacuation of Panama City Beach.

The storm stalled, veered east, and residents were allowed to return home. Then, Elena turned again, Panama City Beach was evacuated a second time, and the storm still didn’t hit — it went to Mississippi, instead.

Later that year, another hurricane, Kate, forced a third evacuation. And despite the two previous false alarms, the number of people who stuck out the storm barely budged.

“We interviewed people after that season, and the percentage of people who evacuated was almost exactly the same in all three storms,” Baker said.

Baker studied an area frequently threatened by hurricanes, where a single false alarm mixed in among accurate forecasts might not have the same impact as in New York, where the first major warnings in more than two decades turned out to be duds. But while people do incorporate their past storm experiences into evacuation decisions, a host of other variables — especially class and culture — determines who stays and who leaves.

One obvious predictor of evacuation is a household’s income, since poor residents of flood zones do not have the money to rent a hotel room and may not have friends or family on higher ground with space to spare.

 

“People who have fewer financial resources are less likely to evacuate,” said Marieke Van Willigen, a sociology professor at East Carolina University. “Which means the poor are at greater risk, and also means that in the long run they suffer more impacts.”

Areas of the Rockaways and Coney Island are among the poorest in the city, which could explain why many residents stayed behind there.

Cultural factors can may also have impacted the behavior of some New Yorkers during Sandy, especially Staten Islanders, according to Katherine Thompson, a graduate student at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University who studies how people react to natural threats.

“There’s always going to be some number of people who don’t evacuate — even for wildfires,” she said.

“There are certain areas where the social norm is to stay and defend,” Thompson added. “There seems to have been especially strong feelings of independence and toughness for Staten Island, and that may have been why a lot of people didn’t leave.”

In fact, plenty of Staten Island residents stayed behind last year, too: firefighters had to pluck more than 60 people from floodwaters in the borough after Irene.

Part of the problem, according to Meyer, is that people fail to perceive the true risks posed by impending storms.

Typically, people surveyed by Meyer’s consortium overestimate the likelihood of damaging winds, while downplaying the potential for storm surge, which is far more dangerous.

“Storm surge is the thing that mainly kills people. It’s the one that takes down buildings. It’s the one that’s most completely disruptive,” Meyer said.

But even in areas that have experienced bad storm surges before, Meyer added, people still tend to consider wind the most serious risk. That’s why people may not take actions like moving their cars to higher ground, he said.

“They really underestimate the water effect of it,” Meyer said. “When people have these wrong [ideas] of what hurricane models are, and what they do, they tend to misprepare for them.”

Another reason Staten Islanders may have been stubborn stems from their past history — not just with hurricanes, but with any type of flooding. After Sandy, many people in the evacuation zone whose property was damaged said that they’d never had problems before, not even “a drop of water.”

According to Thompson, when people have a lot of experience with something without a “rare bad event,” they’re much more likely to disregard instructions from others.

That, according to Baker, the Florida professor, can be problematic when it comes to anticipating the consequences of an extremely rare event.

“I’ve noticed how many people have said, ‘I’ve lived here 40 years, and it’s never flooded like this before,’” he said. “I just want to say: unless you’re 250 years old, you can’t assume that something isn’t going to happen.”

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