Hurricane study reveals reluctance to leave 

Swept Up: Or, how a Harvard hurricane study may convince folks to stay home for the next big one

click to enlarge Most Charlestonians weren't here to see  the devastation from Hurricane Hugo
  • Most Charlestonians weren't here to see the devastation from Hurricane Hugo

The victims of Hurricane Katrina who decided to ride out the storm at home can be put into two piles. There's the first pile: those who were able to bust a hole through their roof and climb out of the attic to wave down passing helicopters or nearby boats. Then there's everyone else: those who didn't provide happy endings to Coast Guard workers' heroic tales. They're just listed as "found."

In an effort to get to the heart of why people decide to stay home for a crisis, other than the obvious need to protect that big collection of porn you can't very well take to Mother's house, Harvard Public Health researchers scoured the Eastern Seaboard to find out why folks were staying put. While their study goes a long way toward explaining the problem, it also provides worrywarts a few new reasons to stay home for the next big one.

The study starts out nice enough. Respondents are asked if they're prepared for a storm, then they're given a list of common provisions. If an evacuation was ordered, would you go? On the South Carolina coast, 26 percent said they would stay and another six percent said they'd have to think about it. Then the study asked those planning to stay home why, and if they didn't have a good excuse, the questioner gives a healthy list of answers for the respondent to choose from. Potential responses includes worries about theft, the death of a pet, lack of money, getting fired, and crowded evacuation routes.

They even ask if the respondent believes that evacuating would be more dangerous than staying home. Most responders side-stepped the paranoia, claiming their homes were well built and could sustain the damage. Note to those folks: There's nothing a storm likes better than a challenge.

And homes built today aren't prepared for winds stronger than 110 mph, says Carl Simmons, the county's building codes director.

"That's not a really bad hurricane," he says. "That's a low category 3. If you're talking about a category 4 or a category 5, you're talking about bad news."

While it may be too late to put your house on stilts, Edwards says the most important thing you can do is to board up the windows and the doors.

"The water does more damage than wind," he says. Spraypainting catchy sayings on those boards (i.e.: "Rain, rain, go away") is optional, of course.

Another big tip: Just because your house may be able to withstand a 110 mph winds doesn't mean it's supposed to withstand that storm with you in it. Nobody likes a long road trip, but would you rather be re-enacting National Lampoon or Alive?

Charleston County has also tried to address other concerns. The second most popular reason to stay home was the long lines heading out of town. If you've never lived through this, you've certainly heard some local complaining or seen the file footage that comes with any story about storm evacuations. The county hasn't tweaked the escape routes much, because there are only so many ways off the coast. The best advice is to keep an eye on storms and, if there's a chance to get out of town early, get out of town. An early exit will let you pick your own route, while exiting under a mandatory evacuation will put you in the line. Lane reversals during mandatory evacuations should curb some of the traffic problems, but it's not a Jetsons type innovation.

"We're not going to get you out faster with four lanes than you would today, but you will be moving," says Cathy Haynes, Charleston County's Emergency Preparedness director. "You may not be going 70, but you will be moving."

There will be help for evacuees during the trip, with fuel locations on high-traffic routes and water and other assistance at rest stops. There will also be regional cooperation in plotting routes to ensure that Charleston evacuees won't bump into Georgia evacuees. Because no one has time to stop for a Jets and Sharks dance-off.

Folks fearful of evacuating are encouraged to plot out their evacuation route on a nice day.

"If someone is not familiar with those roads, it can be rather scary and intimidating," Haynes says. "In fact, there is a destination, it's just they're not very familiar with it."

And as far as valuables go, police units will be patrolling the area throughout a storm, ducking inside for cover only when necessary, Haynes says. A common problem isn't keeping thieves out of your home, it's keeping you out of your home.

After Hugo, some beachfront residents were so desperate to get to their homes that, when kept from land routes, they took to the sea and tried to storm the beaches. Can't wait for that episode of Army Wives.

Hurricane comparisons

$7 billion
That's the amount of damage Hugo caused in the U.S.
That's the number of deaths in the U.S. There were 50 total deaths related to the storm.
20 feet
That's the height of the storm-surge witnessed at Cape Romain and Bulls Bay when Hugo made landfall.

$81.2 billion
That's the estimated cost of Hurricane Katrina.
That's the approximate number of deaths due to the storm.
28 feet
That's the estimated maximum storm surge along the Mississippi coast.

Not so fast

More than two months into the hurricane season, novices may be ready to call it a dud. Think again. Here's a list of notable storms and the date they made landfall.

Aug. 13, 2004: Charley

Aug. 16, 2004: Ivan

Aug. 18, 1983: Alicia

Aug. 24, 1992: Andrew

Aug. 29, 2005: Katrina

Sept. 4, 1995: Opal

Sept. 16, 1999: Floyd

Sept. 18, 2003: Isabel

Sept. 22, 1989: Hugo

Sept. 24, 2005: Rita

Sept. 26, 2004: Jeanne

Oct. 24, 2005: Wilma

Shelter Me

After providing a flood of panic-worthy scenarios regarding evacuations, the Harvard study then does a bang-up job of painting hurricane shelters as veritable death traps, though the picture is based on true concerns about the realities of hazardous shelters like the Superdome during Katrina (not a Red Cross shelter) and Lincoln High School during Hugo that severely flooded (a Red Cross shelter).

The poll asked coastal residents if they were concerned about their safety in a hurricane shelter. Sixty-two percent said they were, and those folks were then asked more questions to get to the heart of their concern (and to subsequently add to their worry). Questions included concerns about a lack of drinking water, potential violence, unsanitary conditions, no privacy, food shortages, substandard medical care, thievery, and, the best of them, the potential that sick people could infect them. We'll assume the frightening infection is worse than getting their neighbor's favorite Ally and AJ song stuck in their head.

The Red Cross staffs shelters with police or security and does background checks on all staff and volunteers. Water, food, and handy wipes (to clean your hands — not to consume) should be in plentiful supply. And, here's the direct word from the Red Cross on privacy: "In addition to providing safe, sanitary, and secure housing for people unable to make their own arrangements for shelter, the American Red Cross always attempts to provide separate facilities for singles, the elderly, and families." Got that? Dating Game, This Is Your Life, and Family Feud. And you thought you had to bring a board game.

In regards to medical care, the Red Cross recommends that evacuees bring three to five days of prescriptions. Staffers will assess medical needs when you arrive. There's also a special medical shelter. You really start getting the impression that these folks have done this kind of thing before.

While some coastal residents see a hurricane as an opportunity to free their house pet to live in the wild, some pet owners feel the onus is on them to stay and ride out the storm with their pet. Learning of this problem after Hugo, the county developed an animal-friendly shelter to give those people who would normally go to a Red Cross shelter an option for them and their pet.

"One of the things we learned was that we're going to have to be strict on how many people stay with the pet," Haynes says. "During Floyd, we had 100 pets and 1,500 people."

A noticeable difference this year for shelter users are the signs noting hurricane bus stops around the county. There are dozens that will be used to get folks to shelters during an evacuation. The county will also be able to provide special service for the disabled and those with pets.

What the Harvard study likely says more than anything is that most people just don't know what they're in for. When asked how long respondents had lived in their community, nearly half said they hadn't been there for more than 10 years. That puts most moving to Charleston long after Hugo had moved on. And those in some areas of the Lowcountry not too terribly beaten by Hugo may have a skewed sense of exactly how bad it was.

The best bet will likely always be to get out. You can replace furniture, you can replace homes, and, yes, you can even replace memories, but you can't replace people ... unless you're a Beatles drummer, Destiny's Child singer, or the star of a poorly developed summer sequel. Daddy Day Camp. Now that's a tragedy.

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