As Hurricane Florence makes its way toward the Carolina coast, residents in the most vulnerable areas for flooding and wind damage have been warned to evacuate. Some of them have not. This is not unusual. There are always people who choose to ride out storms or other natural disasters, even when advised differently. But that doesn’t stop the judgment and shaming from the media and public officials about their actions. Over the last few days, stories about non-evacuees have been filled with words like “defiant” and “refusal to leave.” On Thursday morning, officials in parts of North Carolina made it clear that they would not be answering the 911 calls from those who chose to stay since they are both endangering their own lives and the lives of rescue personnel. And in 2012, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even called people who ignored Hurricane Sandy warnings and evacuation orders “stupid and selfish.”
There are a variety of reasons why people in the path of an incoming hurricane may stay when being warned to go. There are also a lot of assumptions that get made that need to be unpacked. Last year, when Hurricane Harvey was poised to hit Texas, I wrote that it was disproportionately poised to impact black residents. Cue the influx of messages calling me ridiculous and a race-baiter so obsessed that I think even natural disasters can be racist. To be clear, of course I know that there is nothing racist about natural disasters themselves. They can strike anywhere, at any time and people of all races, ethnicities, and socio-economic groups are made victims.
But who is most likely to be impacted by a disaster insofar as living in flood-prone areas, areas with poor infrastructure which are easily damaged? Who has access to money, supplies, and resources to protect their homes, rebuild when necessary, and even the ability to leave or stay is, in part, about race. Those are not racist delusions but facts which recognize that environmental racism is very real. In addition to the different ways that racial minorities in America are disproportionately exposed to pollutants and denied access to certain natural resources, they also happen to live in the areas that are most vulnerable in natural disasters. The same goes for poor people, the elderly, and people with disabilities. So it’s time we start elevating their experiences in the narrative when we talk about who evacuates hurricane zones and who “chooses” not to.
NBC News recently profiled Dawn and James Allen, a white couple living in the mandatory evacuation zone in North Carolina that decided to stay at home with their two children. When asked by Lester Holt why they are not leaving, Dawn said they weren’t leaving due to financial reasons.
“There are so many people who are offering free places to live but you have to have gas money to get there … you have to have food to get there. And our biggest concern was getting back.”
They also considered a hurricane shelter. But Dawn has an autoimmune disease and is concerned that she may be exposed to an illness while staying in a crowded shelter. Evacuating is expensive. The Allens don’t have the money to do it. There’s nothing foolish or selfish about that and it certainly isn’t stupid for Dawn to worry that her health will suffer in emergency shelter conditions that are likely to be somewhat unsanitary and bare-bones. They have stocked up with supplies and are hoping for the best. This is a couple struggling to make ends meet who are doing what they can. But there’s little to no empathy for them. Dawn says they’ve been called “selfish” and “irresponsible” for not being able to evacuate. In all the shaming the Allens are receiving, is anyone thinking to instead offer them gas cards or food or hygienic shelter, or any of the things they would need to actually leave?
The Rev. Dr. William Barber of North Carolina wrote in CNN that storms like Florence “do more than destroy; they also expose the inequities in our society that are perpetuated by extreme policies.” He too acknowledges that millions of poor people have homes, farms, and lives directly in the path of the storm. And yet our policies toward the poor leave people without necessary resources like basic health care, which makes them more vulnerable.
“While the President and his political allies continue to undermine the Affordable Care Act, poor people in North Carolina become sicker than they need to be because they aren't receiving basic health care. The public health crisis that a storm brings will only exacerbate this inequality.”
Barber goes on to remind us that low-wage workers also suffer in storms. While others who have savings may be able to afford to leave evacuation zones, those workers are more likely not to have disposable income to spend on transportation or a hotel room. Raising wages is a point of contention in our society that is not new. But in our capitalist system, all the benefit and consideration is given to corporations and wealthy individuals and not those who make the least amount of money, but are working the hardest.
Americans love telling stories about their working-class parents and grandparents who didn’t earn much but who still made enough to provide for their families and own a house. That’s no longer the case today. But instead of looking at the systems of inequality that allow this to occur or the very rich individuals who actively stifle working people’s wages, we spend time shaming the working poor for their choices. Instead of wondering why they don’t have money to spare to get out of the way of a hurricane, perhaps we should instead be investing our energy in making sure that people have access to jobs with a decent, living wage.
Lastly, there are lessons to be learned from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria about how we actively shame potential hurricane survivors and victims. Roughly 1,400 people died because of Katrina. Most of them were black and were also poor and elderly. In Puerto Rico, nearly 3,000 people died. Most of them were elderly and many of them lived in isolated, remote areas that were hard to reach. Besides telling people to go, what exactly are the systems in place to help people leave if they can’t do it on their own? Elderly folks in particular are more likely to have mobility issues, specific health needs, and limited financial resources that prevent their ability to leave.
And if they’ve lived in a place where they are likely to get hurricane warnings every time hurricane season rolls around, it makes it hard to imagine why they would (even if they could) constantly be picking up and going—especially when there’s been a pattern of storms not being as devastating as predicted. Daily Kos’ own Irna Landrum, a native of New Orleans, had this to say about her own experiences with hurricane warnings:
“When folks were shaming New Orleanians for not having left during Katrina, I thought about HOW MANY evacuation orders we'd gotten in my lifetime. In almost 3 decades. All these storms promising to be the next Betsy or Camille (the last storms to truly ravage New Orleans) and how none of them ever actually amounted to a Katrina.
People just can't afford to leave every single time a storm is pressing on the coast, so they hedge their bets and make do the best they can.”
Many of the folks who don’t leave evacuation zones are simply doing the best they can. Shaming and guilting them about that isn’t productive. If anything, its just another reminder that we don’t respect the poor. Its also a reminder about the grave injustice and inequality that exists in this country because it’s the most vulnerable in our society (the poor, people of color, and the elderly) who can’t afford to get out before a major disaster strikes. If we are going to talk about the people who are “refusing” to leave, let’s make sure we talk about why that is. And then let’s figure out how we get services and resources to help them, instead of throwing up our hands, shaking our heads, and telling them they’re on their own.