Hurricanes are one of the most devastating natural disasters that occur in the world, behind only floods and earthquakes. They can cost billions in damages (Hurricane Katrina remains the costliest on US record at $110 billion) and can take thousands of lives. Despite the risks involved and the advancements made in emergency warnings, some people continue to ignore calls to evacuate and attempt to ride out approaching storms in their own homes. Why do they do this, and is it a good idea?
Weather and emergency professionals say no, it's never a good idea to stay behind in a storm if you have the means to leave.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lists living in a mobile home, a high-rise building, near or on the coast, on a floodplain or near other bodies of water as reasons to immediately evacuate if a hurricane is coming your way. These structures are at the greatest risk of being damaged by the winds of a hurricane, and these locations are the most vulnerable to post-storm flooding. Also, if you are told by local authorities that your area is being evacuated, listen.
Photo courtesy of Chris Mampe
Many people stay behind because they think that their homes are safe enough to withstand a storm, but there are other factors to consider than whether or not your home is strong enough.
All the homes in Florida are required to conform to local codes, as South Florida resident Kevin Connolly explains. After Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, updates were made to the legal requirements for homes being built. Windows must be storm proof- able to withstand 135-140 mph winds. Roofs must have tie downs, and doors need to have hurricane shutters. Connolly's house was built in 1967, so he arranged to have the changes made to his home to bring it up to code.
Though the winds of a hurricane can be brutal, another issue to consider is storm surge. Connolly lives only two blocks from the ocean, so despite living above the sea level requirement for flood insurance- 11 feet or less- he opts to have the insurance for his home. Storm surge can reach up to 20 feet, which would put a large portion of his house underwater.
With all the precautions taken to help secure the house, does he feel safe staying there as a hurricane moves in?
"No, I would not want to stay behind," Connolly said. "I've seen the results of Hurricane Charlie when it hit Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Even if I did feel safe in my home, the aftermath, it's so much to deal with."
This collage by Flickr user doobybrain shows the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew
Homes may be storm resistant, but they can be vulnerable to more than just winds. If the damage around you is severe enough, you could be left without adequate supplies to get you through the devastation that follows. Even if your home remains intact, the loss of power and clean water can create a whole new set of problems. As AccuWeather's Jesse Ferrell is quick to point out, staying behind in a hurricane is about more than surviving the storm.
"As a meteorologist, photographer and amateur storm chaser, I have considered staying behind on an island during a hurricane. What stops me is this: even though I could potentially survive a strong storm, I could be stranded there. Bridges are often closed for days, if they are not destroyed, power would be out, one would need a lot of supplies (that would also need to survive the storm) such as sunblock, water, food, camera/cell phone batteries and many other things."
Some people are storm chasers as a hobby, some as a profession, but anyone who is interested in storm chasing or documenting a natural disaster needs to be well versed in the safety precautions that go into the job. That includes knowing when a situation has too many risks involved to stay.
A common concern people give for staying behind is the fear of loss or damage to their property through looting if no one is around. The best way to handle this situation is to keep crucial things, such as medical records or other important documentation, in your emergency kit. Other items can be replaced by your home owners insurance. It's not worth the risk of your life to stay behind to protect things that you can recuperate during the rebuilding process.
For those who are unable to leave in the event of a hurricane it is important to follow all the necessary safety procedures for staying behind. If you have a safety room, use it. If not, know where the emergency shelter in your community is before a storm comes. Board up doors and windows, and don't forget about your garage doors, which can easily let winds into an otherwise reinforced home. The American Red Cross will also help set up shelter and supply stations for those who do not have the means to leave. Hospitals and nursing homes have emergency plans in place to care for patients who cannot be transported.
Whatever the reason may be for wanting to stay behind, if you have the means to evacuate before a hurricane, do it. Have a plan in place for you and your family before a storm hits. Don't forget your family pets, either. Thousands are killed or stranded in storms by being left in improper care.