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When faced with the decision to evacuate as an impending tropical storm or hurricane approaches, the decision to leave can be easy for some, but not so simple for others.
According to a recent study conducted by insurance company Plymouth Rock Assurance, 47 percent of 1,001 New Jersey homeowners who were polled said they would leave if asked, while 42 percent said their decision would depend on the severity of the storm.
Additionally, respondents were split 50-50 on whether they would prepare for future hurricanes differently after experiencing the effects of Superstorm Sandy. Twenty-three percent said it would be safer to evacuate if a hurricane was approaching their community, while 57 percent said it depends on the severity.
While we are proud of the strength and resilience New Jersey residents have demonstrated, we must not forget the lessons of the past,” Gerry Wilson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Plymouth Rock Management Company of New Jersey, said in a news release. “Failure to obey evacuation orders can be catastrophic not only for those who stay, but also for emergency responders.”
There are several factors involved for those who may be reluctant to leave home during a storm, according to Dr. Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“For a lot of people, home is a part of their identity, it goes beyond what the financial value is and we have to not discount that,” Klapow said. “So for people, leaving their home is like leaving a family member, it’s like leaving a piece of themselves behind.”
In some cases depending on sociodemographic or socioeconomic status, a person’s home may be all that they have, both financially and emotionally, according to Klapow.
Previous experiences with evacuations, whether good or bad, or safely riding out a storm, can influence a decision of whether to leave as well.
“They will tend to discount the severity of the existing [storm] because of their success [staying] previously,” he said. “Whether that’s rational or not, that’s what happens.”
AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said he believes some people are fearful that their property will be vandalized if they vacate, while others may think that a calamity won't happen to them.
Despite hurricanes being forecast several days in advance, often times people will still wait until the last minute to depart. In some cases people have to see the danger, like a tornado, to know it will impact them.
“I think we could do a much better job of understanding what it takes for people to move on a warning or move on a situation like that,” Kottlowski said.
Sheriff Michael Mastronardy, the emergency management coordinator for Ocean County, New Jersey, said they had a great experience evacuating the barrier islands in towns such as Seaside Heights, where a mandatory evacuation order was issued.
The problem, he said, came on the mainland where there wasn’t a mandatory order and the flooding was much worse than anticipated.
Farther inland, in Toms River, New Jersey, Mastronardy said over 400 water rescues were conducted during Sandy, compared to about a dozen on the barrier islands. “Nobody was supposed to evacuate [on the mainland],” he said.
Following the distressing effects of Sandy, Mastronardy said he believes residents view evacuation differently and more seriously than before. Toms River still has more than 1,000 homes scheduled to be razed this year, he added.
“You look at things differently and you know the potential in what could happen, that you never thought could happen,” said Mastronardy, who served as Toms River's police chief for more than two decades before taking over the role of county sheriff in 2013.
If you ask residents who experienced a natural disaster why they stayed, typical responses include, ‘I thought I could ride it out,' ‘my home is important to me,’ or they didn’t have a place to go, Klapow explained.
Klapow also emphasized that there’s a difference between what someone says, such as in a poll, versus what they’ll actually do when facing a legitimate threat.
In times of tranquil weather, people will tend to discount the importance of preparing, but when a storm is impending, people’s anxieties increase, Klapow said.
In the short run, there is a drive towards increased preparedness, such as getting supplies at the store, he added.
“The problem you run into is when anxiety levels run get high, people become paralyzed by their own anxiety. They start making poor decisions, they start making impulsive decisions,” he said.
One of the biggest dangers people face when dealing with a hurricane is storm surge. According to the NHC, storm surge has caused nearly half of the deaths in the United States from tropical cyclones since 1963.
Kottlowski said this is because water affects a much larger area than wind and tornadoes.
“Wind is mostly localized when it hits. Tornadoes are very localized when they hit from a hurricane, he said. “But the water covers a huge area and the force of water is so much greater collectively than the wind is.”
In addition, storm surge can reach much farther inland and catch residents off guard who thought they were safe.
“I think what has to happen is, we as meteorologists, have to better portray what the impacts are going to be as the storm is approaching a given area. We can only do so much. In the end, people will have to make the call,” Kottlowski said.
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