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August 31, 2012

Storm Psychology: Why Do People Stay Put in Natural Disasters?

When natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and forest fires strike, what is the psychology behind why some people refuse to leave their homes despite public safety warnings to evacuate — is it fear, denial, or something else that makes them stay put? A study published in the journal Psychological Science attempted to answer this question by asking a group who would know: Hurricane Katrina survivors who weathered the storm at home.

What the team of psychology researchers, co-led by Hilary Bergsieker, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, found in their interviews of approximately 80 Katrina survivors was that a mix of factors drove the decision not to leave. One the main reasons for staying was economic, according to a NBC News report on the research. In the study group, those with ample financial resources were more likely to have left in advance of the hurricane than those with fewer financial resources.

But finances don’t the whole story, say researchers, who point to key psychological and psycho-social reasons that helped determine who became a “stayer” rather a “leaver” in the face of natural disaster.

Mistrust of outsiders — in the form of people who aren’t from your community claiming to know more than you do about your own home by telling you to leave it — appeared to be a leading reasons why some stayed during Katrina. “This is where you’ve always been your whole life, and suddenly people on the radio are telling you you have to leave? That may seem like a much more dangerous choice than to stay with people from your church, or people from your block,” Bergsieker says. What the study didn’t account for, but what seems implicit, is the role anxiety may play in why feelings of mistrust develop.
Whatever is at the root of the first wave of people staying put, when this nucleus dig in, it leads others to follow suit, even if they believed the warnings were serious. In the case of Katrina, it was simply unthinkable for many people to leave behind their tightknit communities, even if they could afford to.

“That’s your world; that’s all you know,” says Bergsieker.

Still others stayed during the hurricane because they felt obligated to be of assistance to others. “If your neighbor tells you he’s staying, then you might stay, too – after all, if something happened to him, who would be there to take care of him if you leave?”

That’s why Ariella Cohen, who was in New Orleans for Hurricane Gustave in 2008, decided to stick out the storm, despite the city’s mandatory evacuation order.

As she tells NBC: “I’m young, I’m able-bodied and relatively fit. What if someone older and weaker needs me? I was, like, 27 at the time, so I was young and strong, and I would be able to help people if the time came.”

Researchers hope this information can be used by public safety officials when developing preparedness instructions for other natural disasters, such as earthquakes and forest fires. Perhaps a local person viewed as a trustworthy member of the community could be the one to go on TV to deliver warnings and quell anxiety, or members of the community could be recruited to help their neighbors evacuate, rather than having outside groups take on the task.

Cohen, who now lives in Philadelphia, wishes she had listened less to her swirling emotions and more to public safety warnings.

“In retrospect, definitely I was a bit naïve. Natural disasters don’t go by the logic of human psychology,” Cohen acknowledges. “I think that there’s a lot of it that’s hard to conceive – like, it’s hard to conceive of your own death, it’s difficult to conceive of natural disaster. It just seemed unbelievable that another storm could hit the city hard. And so I stayed.”


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