As Hurricane Ian made its way toward Florida’s west coast, both local and state officials activated emergency plans — urging residents to evacuate from high-impact areas.
But when it comes to evacuating from Ian’s path, residents such as Sharon Charles told NPR that they have no choice but to stay put and ride through the storm.
“I’m a wildlife rehabilitator and I care for a feral cat colony in my backyard,” said Charles.
Charles, who cares for nearly 20 pets, said that many hurricane evacuation shelters don’t accept animals, with only a few allowing only one to two animals; leaving those who don’t want to abandon their pets no other choice but to stay in their homes.
Whether it’s first responders, people working in animal shelters, those with disabilities or people with a language barrier, the reality is often far more complicated for those who can’t easily get up and evacuate to safety.
“Evacuation is not as easy as it may seem if you are outside of the evacuation area,” said Cara Cuite, an assistant extension specialist in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University.
Cuite, who has studied evacuation decisions people made during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, says it’s not as simple as one may think when you’re not in the moment.
“It’s easy to think: Of course, people should just pack up and leave,” she said. But for “people with disabilities, those with pets or simply [if] you don’t have a car or enough money on hand to leave, that can make it really challenging.”
Evacuating your home can be expensive
Depending on a family’s financial situation, evacuating away from a storm can be costly.
“Many modest- to low-income households simply don’t have the cash or credit,” said Joshua Behr, research professor at Old Dominion University, in a 2018 interview with NPR.
“When they return home they have difficulty paying the rent or mortgage,” he added.
Behr emphasized that the poorest may often wait until the last minute to evacuate, resulting in little to no availability for affordable hotel rooms.
“When you go through that cycle once or twice, you’re more skeptical,” he added. “There’s a sense of storm fatigue. You tend to wait and see.”
Language and literacy can also be a barrier to leaving
When English isn’t someone’s first language, planning for a natural disaster such as a hurricane makes things a tad bit difficult.
And while many emergency warnings and notices are now printed in both English and Spanish, there’s still a gap when for those who speak other languages.
More than 400,000 households in Florida speak Haitian Creole as their primary shared language, according to the Census Bureau. Tens of thousands of Floridians speak Portuguese, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Arabic, German, Russian, Italian or another language as their primary shared language at home.
“While looking at an evacuation map at a county in Florida, I saw they have it in both English and Spanish and thought ‘OK, that’s great.’ But also there are people there who may not speak either language,” said Cuite.
Cuite says alongside the language barrier being an issue for people, there are also different levels of literacy to account for.
“Some people may not be able to read, which makes things like finding their evacuation zone a challenge,” she said.
Sometimes a little outreach can help the most vulnerable
There are elderly people living alone in flood-prone areas who might be able to evacuate, but just need extra help to do so.
“They might be elderly residents who are living independently. And so, you know, they’re relying upon the government,” John Renne, professor at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said in a 2017 interview with NPR.
“The more we can bring in social service organizations, nonprofit organizations to help them with their evacuation, even if it’s only for a few miles, the more prepared and the better everyone will be, and the less tragic the event could become,” he added.