Why some choose to stay through scary storms

By on September 4, 2019

Krystal Fiddner is staying put during Dorian. (Photo by Catherine Kozak)

“Mandatory” and “evacuation” mean different things to different people during storms, and for a significant number of Outer Banks residents, those words are the cue to check emergency supplies, get food and gas before they’re gone, and dash to the liquor store.

And hunker down.

“We’ve never evacuated,” said Krystal Fiddner, a Manteo resident. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s necessary. I guess if it was a [Category] 4 or higher, we would leave.”

As vehicles, nearly all traveling north, streamed past on the U.S. 158 Bypass, Fiddner chatted on Wednesday after leaving the Dollar Tree in Kill Devil Hills, where she had stopped to pick up cleaning supplies. She said that her friends and neighbors seem to share her reluctance to leave.  “They’re all here,” she noted.

Despite the fact that people in the path of storm receive scary warnings from emergency managers and are told that they shouldn’t count on being rescued if there’s trouble, social scientists say they persist in ignoring orders to evacuate for a multitude of reasons – and they’re not necessarily irresponsible or rash reasons.

With Hurricane Dorian bearing down on Florida as a major storm, Dare County officials issued mandatory evacuations for all visitors for Tuesday Sept. 3, and issued the same order for residents on Wednesday.  Gov. Roy Cooper also issued mandatory evacuations for all the state’s barrier islands, including the Dare, Currituck and Hyde counties’ Outer Banks.

Under North Carolina law, it is a Class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine or even jail, not to obey evacuation orders. But the policy has almost always been to allow residents to stay at their own risk if that’s what they choose to do – although it is strongly discouraged by emergency officials.

It’s a different story, however, for the many thousands of Outer Banks visitors, who are obligated to leave by property managers and hoteliers.

Evacuation orders have long been a dicey issue on the Outer Banks, where the bulk of the economy depends on revenue from summer vacationers. It is also a place where the few roads and bridges on the islands, as well as ferries, are subject to closures during high winds and flooding events. Moving so many people off a long string of islands with so few transportation options takes days to accomplish safely before a hurricane arrives.

And sometimes, the storm turns at the last minute, or fizzles out — leaving angry business owners with lovely summer weather and no customers, or workers suddenly out of work, or losing out on a significant chunk of income.

“It’s kind of hard to those of us trying to make a living,” said Fiddner, who works for Monarch, a nonprofit that supports services for disabled people.  Work days that are lost during evacuations are considered paid time off, she said, which means ultimately there are less vacation days.

It’s not just the loss of income that concerns people in the path of a storm; it is also the cost of travel, hotels, pet boarding, and meals. Sometimes, a family that evacuates will face thousands of dollars in credit card costs, and find that there was no danger to flee from, or that there was no place to flee to.

That’s why Rick Lankford, a Kill Devil Hills resident, said he wouldn’t be leaving for Dorian, except for the need to look after his mother-in-law, who lives near the Pasquotank River in Camden.  But Lankford also said that his home is not subject to flooding, and if a storm sounded dangerous, he would pay attention.

“My philosophy is to heed the warnings, and respect nature,” he said right before he and his wife, Rachel, took a stroll Wednesday morning on the beach by Avalon Fishing Pier.

For her part, Rachel Lankford said she would probably not want to stay in a very strong hurricane. She said her two adult daughters and the couple’s friends are all staying put for Dorian. “Honestly, anytime when the winds are sustained 100 mph, that’s scary,” she added.

Researchers say that a person’s perception of risk is the strongest predictor of whether or not to evacuate, according to a 2018 National Science Foundation study.  Sometimes, that perception is rooted in misinformation or a misunderstanding, making it all the more important that public agencies communicate frequently and clearly.

“Our analysis suggests that individuals’ perceptions were based on the amount of media they consumed before the hurricane, past experiences of loss from a hurricane, and other personal factors not tied to the recommendations of emergency response agencies,” wrote Roxanne Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine.

Silver, who studied evacuation during Hurricane Irma in Florida, also said that improper information had led some people who weren’t in evacuation zones to leave, and others who were in risk areas to stay.

An article published in October 2017 in the Social Science Space blog, “When You Talk About Evacuation, You’re Talking About Psychology,” stated that little is known about the psychology of decision-making during dangerous conditions. Citing a 2017 study published by the International Journal of Public Health, the article identified such factors as an inability or unwillingness to leave home, the degree of a person’s self-sufficiency and the availability of good information to help with coping strategies.

Another important factor in deciding whether to evacuate is taking care of pets, according to a May 2019 article in Psychology Today. “People may feel overwhelmed when they think about the logistics of evacuating their pets, especially if they have multiple animals,” the author wrote.

Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, some people simply decide that staying put is the better option.

“This is home,” Fiddner said. “Pretty much, we just want to stay home.”



  • Steve

    It’s a;ways so nice on Hatteras once evacuation orders are given. We really enjoy it! Good way to start the season.

    Thursday, Sep 5 @ 5:28 am
  • Beach Bum

    No mention of Looters and Pickers – hmm.

    Thursday, Sep 5 @ 6:36 am
  • Steve

    This storm is not at all a scary one here on Hatteras. Able to enjoy this wonderful beach day without all the tourists. Our season has started!

    Thursday, Sep 5 @ 8:46 am
  • surf123

    The reasons people stay are:
    1. The government has locked us out of returning when Route 12 was broken.
    2. They want to be able to clean up their house as quickly as possible if flooded or damaged.
    3. They have no place to go or no funds to spend on housing and food in another town.
    4. They have pets.
    5. They are not going to participate in the nanny state. No one wants anyone telling them of imminent death and destruction when the reality is that it is highly unlikely. There are still people who are not dependent on others and don’t want to be.
    6. Looters and Pickers are way down the list.

    Not included, but at the top of my list is not missing out on the surf both before and after.

    Thursday, Sep 5 @ 11:50 am
  • Kdhdeb

    People lost confidence in The Weather Channel and now NOAA has become just as useless. Why disrupt your life and spend money when nothing happens? Surely they could be more precise. When Katrina happened, I wondered why the NOLA residents didn’t leave. Now I know why. And every non-event that happens makes more people decide to ignore the emergency management alerts. People aren’t scared or stupid, they’re disgusted by all of the hype.

    Thursday, Sep 5 @ 4:12 pm
  • Regina

    Just spent over $500 to evacuate Dorian with my 3 cats. I wanted to stay, husband insisted on leaving due to exaggerated warnings. Geeesh!

    Friday, Sep 6 @ 9:36 pm