'Why didn’t you evacuate?': Expert explains why fleeing Florence’s wrath wasn’t a privilege everyone could afford

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
September 19, 2018, 2:23:51 PM EDT

Days before then-Category 4 Hurricane Florence was projected to pound the Carolinas, government officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for areas expected to face a significant impact.

However, of the more than one million people ordered to evacuate, not everyone chose to escape harm’s way. In the aftermath of Florence, which made landfall as a downgraded, yet still deadly, Category 1 hurricane, emergency responders and members of the Cajun Navy conducted several water rescues for those trapped by rising floodwaters.

In the midst of these rescues, a number of users on social media asked, “Why did they not evacuate?,” or “Why are they putting the lives of first responders at risk?”

The reasons vary but for many, the privilege of evacuating was one they simply could not afford.

Family chooses not to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Florence's arrival - AP Photo

In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, photo, Mercedes O'Neill, her 6-year-old daughter Sophie and boyfriend Kelly Johnson sit outside their home in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. O'Neill thought a long time about evacuating from Hurricane Florence, but decided they couldn't afford it. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

“It's easy to be frustrated with or judge those who did not evacuate from a serious storm like Hurricane Florence,” said Dr. B.D. Wortham-Galvin, director of Clemson University's Master of Resilient Urban Design program. Wortham-Galvin had to evacuate Charleston, South Carolina, to escape Florence’s impending threat.

“However, not everyone has the means to leave when a mandatory evacuation is declared; many households in the evacuation areas do not own cars and/or live paycheck to paycheck,” Wortham-Galvin said.

Families in these situations lack the resources to leave. Missing a single day of work means they can’t pay basic bills or put food on the table, according to Wortham-Galvin.

“Not all businesses closed down during the evacuation,” she said. "This means these workers did not have the option of leaving, even though they would have liked to. The hardship on low-wage and hourly workers is real enough that many risk their lives because they have no other choice.”

People might also have limited resources and lack immediate family members in the area that could help out. “During Hurricane Sandy (in 2012), low-income families in New Jersey lost $832 million in wages and yet only a fraction received FEMA disaster relief,” Wortham-Galvin said. “This sends the message to those in need and most at risk that they need to work as long as they can rather than evacuate.”

Difficulties evacuating during high-risk storms also extend to the elderly population and those with medical issues, Wortham-Galvin said.

When Hurricane Irma struck Florida in 2017, at least eight people in a Hollywood nursing home died after the storm knocked out power, leaving them without air conditioning.

A month prior, emergency responders in Texas worked to rescue elderly citizens from nursing homes flooded during Harvey.

Some people, like Jennifer Dimitriu, a North Carolina resident who lives near Charlotte with her family, didn’t evacuate because only towns along the coast were ordered to leave.

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“Still, we are asked by everyone we know in other states, ‘Why haven't you evacuated?,’” Dimitriu told AccuWeather.

Although it’s assumed that it’s the safest option, she said, the numbers tell a different story.

“We did not evacuate because 76 percent of hurricane-related deaths are in vehicles,” said Dimitriu, whose family is in the midst of its first-ever hurricane season. “The flooding on roads is what kills most people, not the wind, and since we are inland where most of the threat is flash flooding, it is logical to dig in.”

“We've learned that you have to decide well ahead of the evacuation order,” she added. “Odds of survival are far better at home if the decision to evacuate isn't made ahead off all the traffic and rainfall. You have to leave at the first hint of real trouble.”

Wortham-Galvin noted that Florence’s impacts have extended beyond the coast, and that while media coverage has focused on the drama surrounding storm surge on the coastal areas, hurricanes and tropical storms can wreak just as much havoc inland, she said.

North Carolina Task Force urban search and rescue team - AP Photo

Members of the North Carolina Task Force urban search and rescue team wade through a flooded neighborhood looking for residents who stayed behind during Florence in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

For over a week, AccuWeather meteorologists have been warning and emphasizing the dangers of catastrophic flash flooding and major river flooding expected to mount across North Carolina and northern South Carolina in Florence’s wake.

In the case of Hurricane Florence, heavy rains in North Carolina can result in flooding in South Carolina because of the interconnectedness of the watershed system, according to Wortham-Galvin.

“The flooding of rivers is a significant and devastating outcome of these types of storms, and our inland preparedness and awareness needs to increase in order to save more lives and infrastructures therein,” Wortham-Galvin said.

“While these storms can be difficult to predict in terms of paths, we need to focus not just on the point of landfall, but on the larger path thereafter in terms of how officials and residents view emergency preparedness and areas of evacuation,” she said.

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