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Why do some people ignore evacuation orders?

September 5, 2009 |  7:00 am

Katrina The recent wildfires and ensuing evacuation orders raise the touchy question of why some people refuse to leave their homes and risk their lives. Do they have a death wish? Long for a little excitement? Were they unable to leave?

A study of Katrina survivors, published this summer in the journal Psychological Science, found that none of those typical assumptions fit. Instead, the people who defied evacuation orders -- many of whom had limited financial resources -- did not feel powerless or passive but instead saw themselves as connected to their neighbors and dependent on each other. They also expressed their faith in God and strong feelings about caring for others.

Stanford psychologist Nicole Stephens conducted two surveys to compare the views of 461 outside observers with the perspectives of 79 New Orleans residents who either rode out Katrina (41 people) or evacuated (38). Detailed measures of the survivors' well-being, such as their mood, life satisfaction, mental health and drug and alcohol usage, were recorded. There were no significant differences in these factors between the people who stayed and those who left. Still, observers were derogatory in their views of the people who stayed, the study found, describing them as careless and dependent.

Relief workers and public officials should not assume that defying an evacuation order is simply a bad choice, the authors suggested, but a choice that reflects one's resources and personal perspectives.

Those who stayed "more often adjusted to their limited options by having faith and by actively maintaining hope despite hardship," the authors wrote. "One stayer stated, 'Through much prayers and faith in God, that's how we made it.' "

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Irwin Thompson  /  Associated Press / Dallas Morning News

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