Is Evacuating Your Home a Personal Choice?

September 23rd, 2008 by Kathy McManus

In the event of disaster, is it an individual’s right to stay put?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

In the devastating aftermath of the super-sized hurricanes Gustav and Ike, a pointed debate has taken hold, pitting personal responsibility against Mother Nature and the rule of law.

At issue are the increasing number of hurricane “hold-outs” who refuse to leave their homes, even in the face of mandatory evacuation orders and National Weather Service warnings of “certain death.”

Some stay because they are elderly, infirm, or have no place to go. Others say evacuating is too “expensive”—they can’t afford to fix a broken car and don’t have money for gas anyway.

“You need to be scared,” implored New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, as Hurricane Gustav bore down on the city. But even his Category 5 language—“You need to get your butts out of New Orleans now”—had little bearing on people determined to stay.

The most defiant group of hold-outs includes those who hunker down to protect their property from forces other than nature. “I am staying here because of what happened to my pub when Katrina rolled in—looting and mindless destruction,” explained a New Orleans bar owner who ignored Gustav’s mandatory evacuation order. “I will probably stay until someone with a rifle and uniform shows up.”

And that’s what worries authorities--when someone’s personal decision to ride out a hurricane goes awry, other lives are put on the line, most notably, rescue workers. As Hurricane Ike hit its Texas bulls-eye, thousands of bold hold-outs who had stubbornly stayed suddenly swamped emergency dispatchers with frightened pleas for help.

Galveston’s city manager described the situation as “very frustrating,” while a newspaper editorial plunged right into the swelling question of personal responsibility and hurricanes “It is usually thought of as a strong and noble character trait identifying one’s ability to manage his or her own affairs responsibly. But in the wake of Hurricane Ike, it has proven to ally with sheer stupidity.”

Tell us what you think: Is your greater responsibility to the law, or to personally protecting your home and possessions? Whose responsibility is it if someone dies in defiance of a government order to evacuate from a storm?