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Some don't evacuate, despite repeated hurricane warnings, because they can't

A baby looks out the window of a truck picking its way through Horseshoe Beach, Fla., surveying storm damage, after the passage of Hurricane Idalia, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.
Rebecca Blackwell
/
AP
A baby looks out the window of a truck picking its way through Horseshoe Beach, Fla., surveying storm damage, after the passage of Hurricane Idalia, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.

Updated August 31, 2023 at 4:20 PM ET

As Hurricane Idalia made its way across the Southeast, both local and state officials activated emergency plans — urging residents to evacuate from high-impact areas.

"You run from the water and you hide from the wind," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis toldreporters during a news conference Tuesday. "If you are given those orders, please heed those orders."

But when it comes to evacuating from the path of a major storm like Idalia, some residents in hurricane-prone areas have no choice but to stay put and ride things out.

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

People walk through flood waters on SR44 Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, in Crystal River, Fla. Hurricane Idalia made landfall earlier this morning along the Big Bend of the state.
Chris O'Meara / AP
/
AP
People walk through flood waters on SR44 Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023, in Crystal River, Fla. Hurricane Idalia made landfall earlier this morning along the Big Bend of the state.

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 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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.
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