Medium: The Life-or-Death Science of Evacuation Psychology

Scientists are gaining a better understanding of why, no matter the severity, many residents won’t heed orders to evacuate.

 WILMINGTON, NC — September 13, 2018: Elizabeth Claire Toomer floats while swimming with friends in the Intracoastal Waterway as Hurricane Florence approached the area. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty

WILMINGTON, NC — September 13, 2018: Elizabeth Claire Toomer floats while swimming with friends in the Intracoastal Waterway as Hurricane Florence approached the area. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty

This story first appeared on Medium.

Early Friday morning, Sept. 14, Hurricane Florence made landfall as a Category 1 storm near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Although the storm has lost some of its offshore strength, it’s still considered highly dangerous by authorities and is already causing severe flooding. By Thursday, North Carolina officials had issued evacuation orders in 16 vulnerable counties. Some are voluntary, but most are mandatory, covering around 1 million people, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS).

But, as in the cases of Harvey, Maria, Katrina, and other recent high-profile hurricanes, many people have chosen not to follow evacuation orders, putting themselves and emergency responders at risk. Keith Acree, a North Carolina DPS spokesperson, said the state has no way to monitor exactly how many people evacuated ahead of Florence, although he reported a steady stream of inland-bound traffic.

As climate change increases the severity and frequency of catastrophic storms, emergency management authorities are looking for new ways to motivate people to take precautionary action. The answer may be more psychological than technological. Over the last decade, meteorologists have made huge strides in precision weather forecasting, but it hasn’t proven to be enough to get more people to move themselves out of harm’s way, said Jennifer Marlon, an environmental scientist at Yale. “We need to invest in communication,” Marlon said. “There’s a recognition that what’s going on in people’s minds is as important as us getting the models right.”

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