Analysis Environment

What Hurricane Irma Taught Us About Why People Don’t Evacuate

India Amos

People often stay due to lack of money, the difficulty of traveling while disabled, language barriers, and fear of job loss—even when weather stops almost all business.

After causing at least 38 deaths in the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma tore through Florida and its neighboring states, where an additional 26 deaths were reported on the U.S. mainland. While the causes of these deaths vary from car crashes to heat-related illnesses, many of these fatalities occurred because individuals remained in dangerous natural disaster zones.

For many people, the choice to stay was made out of necessity rather than gaining a sense of pride from besting a catastrophic storm or laziness, a false narrative that similarly made the rounds when many people didn’t evacuate during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

A variety of personal and environmental reasons can deter individuals from leaving a disaster zone, and a good portion of these issues specifically pertain to communities of color, people with disabilities, and their already-limited access to key resources and services. For nondrivers as well, it can be incredibly difficult to secure safe, reliable public transportation out of an affected area when routes are reduced or canceled altogether.

Priced Out of Leaving

This process is further complicated when evacuees are low-income or have little extra money to spend on pricey evacuation methods. While plane tickets are generally more expensive than bus tickets, the controversial practice of price gouging, drastic price increases that occur during disasters or periods of heightened need, becomes commonplace.

Price gouging may sound like good business sense and economic practice in theory—responding to supply and demand. But it capitalizes on human desperation as a driving force in the market so businesses can turn a greater profit during crises. In preparation for Hurricane Irma, price gouging primarily took the form of skyrocketing prices for bottled water, airline tickets, and gas. On September 9, Florida’s price gouging hotline had received more than 8,000 complaints, before the storm even hit the panhandle.

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While an economic nuisance for some, price gouging can be deadly to others. For Florida’s homeless population of about 67,000 individuals, paying thousands of dollars for one airplane ticket is out of the question. For individuals with homes and steady income, however, these increased prices can still be out of reach. An expensive plane or train ticket can eat away at a family’s savings, rendering these options obsolete for the many Americans living paycheck to paycheck. 

For Aurora Dominguez, a teacher and freelance journalist based in Hollywood, Florida, the decision to remain at home was based largely on finances. “There was no way my husband and I could leave everything behind and spend money on gas, expensive plane tickets, or hotels,” she wrote in an email to Rewire. “We didn’t have the means to all of a sudden drop hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars on these expenses.”

While bus tickets with companies such as Greyhound and Megabus were certainly cheaper than their airline counterparts, these travel companies were unable to avoid terrestrial obstacles. Heavy traffic clogged northbound interstates, and jams resulting from this evacuation resonated in states as far north as Ohio, resulting in hours-long delays for motorists. Since these buses drive on public roads and interstates, their schedules were frequently delayed (and their seats often full), causing riders’ plans to be deferred, too.

Missing Work During a Storm Can Cost You a Job

Ashley Miracle, a clinical student at Barry University’s physician assistant program, is also from Hollywood, Florida, and has been completing her work rotations at a Key West emergency department. Upon learning that the Keys were projected to take a direct hit from the hurricane, she planned to move north and out of the hurricane’s way. However, due to shifting meteorological models that predicted which cities would take the brunt of Irma’s wrath, Miracle hopped from Hollywood to Fort Myers before returning to Hollywood again as Irma shifted westward.

According to Miracle, her decision to remain in South Florida was based on traffic conditions, general anxiety, and the need to go to work.

“I did not want to get stranded by going north because I knew there was already starting to be gas shortages and the roads were jam-packed,” she wrote in an email to Rewire. “I was also very anxious to return back to my rotation in the Keys so I wanted to be as close as possible.”

These delays would be a disappointment during a vacation or other type of leisure travel, but for employees who needed to promptly be at work, such as essential staff members like health care workers, they were debilitating and could have served as a factor when deciding whether or not evacuation was worth the trouble. A handful of restaurants and convenience stores resumed business on September 11 in the Miami-Dade County area, requiring some residents to be on the clock almost immediately after the hurricane passed. Due to traffic’s unpredictability, it would have been nearly impossible for many workers to leave and come back in time for their shift on Monday or Tuesday.

Camelia Pomales-Coll, a Miami resident who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said that her job as a banker stopped her from being able to evacuate promptly, had she wanted to leave the area. According to Pomales-Coll, “banks do not close unless absolutely necessary so they tend to wait until the last minute to release their employees.” Since Miami was not in a mandatory evacuation zone, this did not drastically affect Pomales-Coll, but the situation could have been much worse were she in a part of the state that was hit more heavily.

There are no laws in Florida to protect employees for missing work during a mandatory evacuation. As a result, many workers are required to report to their jobs so long as their workplace is open that day, and it is within a supervisor’s rights to fire an employee who is unable to report to work during a natural disaster.

Furthermore, hourly workers are not likely to be paid during time away from work, so, for some, evacuation can be viewed as a guaranteed way to lose income for the days the employee is out of town. Now, as the influx of traffic heading back into Florida continues, residents who chose to evacuate risk losing their jobs if they are not able to report to work for their designated shift since Irma passed.

Union workers at Disney World in Central Florida were affected by the amusement park’s two-day closure after the hurricane and are asking for financial compensation for their lost pay. This request was spurred by Disney’s statement that they would be paying non-unionized workers, which includes Disney’s college program workers and seasonal and clerical employees, for those two days. That statement mentioned no pay for union workers.

Accessible for Who? 

Beyond the physical obstacles that make it difficult to safely and efficiently evacuate millions from a potential disaster zone, linguistic barriers exist as well.

This is especially an issue in South Florida, where 64 percent of Miami-Dade’s 2.6 million residents speak Spanish at home. This creates communication challenges for relief groups and government organizations, who now must struggle to find ways to translate warning messages into Spanish at a brisk speed. While Miami can easily operate on this bilingual plane, according to Terena Bell at the Atlantic, “the language barrier is between Miami and everybody else.”

For populations that don’t speak English or understand it well, additional translation steps must be made to ensure proper information is relayed accurately. However that means important news and warnings are dispersed at a slower rate. This, in turn, can cause Spanish-speakers and other non-English speakers to evacuate less quickly. And, in the middle of a crisis, those few moments can be critical.

Florida’s population of deaf and hard of hearing also suffered from inadequate communication channels. At a September 8 Irma-related news briefing in Manatee County, a sign language interpreter was seen signing incorrect words such as “pizza” and “bear monster.” The interpreter, Marshall Greene, was reported to have been found “in a pinch,” and his inaccurate warnings reveal how the deaf community wasn’t prioritized during this natural disaster.

For nonprofits such as the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, an organization dedicated to providing efficient disaster response services to disabled individuals, Hurricanes Irma and Harvey connected the organization with families whose children needed health supplies and life-saving drugs. According to Marcie Roth, the nonprofit’s CEO, the organization’s goal is “to help survivors maintain good physical and mental health so they can get back to their everyday lives, and if possible, their homes and medical supplies and equipment.” Nonprofit groups such as Roth’s hope to fill some of the gaps left by local and state government relief efforts.

While government representatives urged Floridians to evacuate in preparation for Hurricane Irma, little effort was devoted to counteracting the structural issues that deterred residents from safely fleeing their homes. Until such efforts are made, low-income, immigrant, and disabled populations will continue to be marginalized in a disaster, which puts their lives at special risk during this active hurricane season.

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