'Don't be stupid': Human behavior in disasters
Downed trees and power lines along Dauphin Street in Mobile, Alabama after a Christmas Day tornado.
December 27th, 2012
09:42 AM ET

'Don't be stupid': Human behavior in disasters

By Libby Lewis, CNN

Editor's Note: Listen to the full story in our player above, and join the conversation in our comments section below.

(CNN) – When it comes to how people react in disaster situations, be it the recent tornadoes in the Southeast or the killer tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri in 2011, some people just don't listen.

It happened with Hurricane Katrina. It happened with Hurricane Sandy.

Thousands of people who were told to evacuate – DIDN’T.

So, what were they thinking?

Geographer Susan Cutter makes a living examining the answers to questions like that.

She’s based at the University of South Carolina.

Was it because people didn’t take Sandy seriously after the over-hype with Hurricane Irene the year before? Or because they didn’t have family or friends to escape to? Because they waited too long – after public transportation shut down?

Or maybe it was because they had a cat or a dog?

[1:10] "Because you can’t take your pets to a public shelter. Pets are part of the family and for elderly they ARE the family, right?" Cutter says.

She says these questions are important to answer. And she says they will be, with studies of Hurricane Sandy.

[1:26] "The top-down military model, 'I tell you to evacuate and you leave,' doesn’t work anymore. Because people are making their own judgments. So the best approach is to recognize how people may make decisions – how they may behave in evacuations – and develop plans that accommodate that."

Listen to our full story to hear some of the lessons learned from studying how people made decisions during the Joplin tornado.

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Filed under: Behavior • Science • Stories
soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Sommer Hribar

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    December 31, 2012 at 7:38 am | Report abuse |
  2. Richard

    They should fine people for driving for frivolous reasons in bad winter weather.

    December 27, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tara

    Sometimes it's a matter of finances – especially for things like hurricanes. Sometimes it's simple logistics. If we leave for a hurricane evacuation and it doesn't hit (as is often the case), we're out a substantial portion of the budget. In some areas, by the time they call for an evacuation, evacuation routes are clogged (on the Gulf Coast, the highways become a parking lot). Out of 7 evacuations, we took 3 hits. One did damage. Two were downgraded to tropical storms on landfall. The last time we tried to evacuate, we sat on the highway less than 10 miles from the house for over an hour before turning back and riding it out. Somewhere, we have a T-shirt that says "We survived Hurricane Elena – twice." So it's not a simple matter of "It's going to hit on the X in 36 hours." More like "It might hit between D and V sometime tomorrow."

    December 27, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. wg2411

    Duh,.. Hurricanes?? LOL 15 ft storm surge? HA! I am going to ride it out and hold up the walls of my house against the 125 MPH Winds, I will just tie the Dog to the top of the tree!! Shooters with assult weapons ( mostly stolen ), let's make a law banning everyone from owning guns that way the bad guys can still have theirs even if they are being imported by drug lords in other countries. People don't hunt with assault rifles ban them, BREAKING NEWS!! They don't hunt with hand guns either! Give me a pass port, I'm leaving!

    December 27, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. t

    Americans are the STUPIDEST AND LAZIEST people who are on earth right now.

    December 27, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Elvis

    Let the stupid people be stupid. Hopefully in time they will all disappear and this will help with the overpopulation problem.

    December 27, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  7. dougjmiller

    Another massive , record breaking snowfall. So many people suffering and so much damage inflicted from yet another cold weather disaster. This only highlights the onset of a new, world wide climate change phenomenon, "Global cooling." But fortunately there is a solution: a massive tax increase on leftists. Al Gore, we're gonna get our money back.

    December 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  8. soundslikedave

    If you ignore orders to evacuate, you should be responsible for your actions. I should not have to spend my tax dollars getting you out of trouble when the resources could and should be earmarked for other relief efforts.
    If you stay, you pay.

    December 27, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Moe Ha Med

    Telling Americans not to be stupid is like telling a dog not to bark.

    December 27, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • That's just crazy talk

      Almost as stüpid as your misspelled name

      December 27, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • mechanicalpulse

      Surprisingly, my dog will stop barking if I tell her to. You must not know anything about dogs. Or Americans.

      December 27, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. thebeerdude

    Why don't people listen to weather warnings? Could it be because they see hysterical pregnant women on the Weather Channel and common sense tells them not to listen to them?

    December 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • rand

      During hurricane Wilma – my kids, (bull halsey, covey isle and vida, dogs) were told to evacuate. I could go – the dogs could not. I respect the Mexican army for having our best interest at heart. I had to leave my kids – did so with high mattresses and plenty of fresh food and water. But, I did evacuate. My doing so allowed for the army to take take care of those needing more service than I. Did it make me crazy to do so...yes. Was it the right decision...Yes. Staying behind during an evacuation notice is selfish and thoughtless. Not only do you compromise your own safety – but, the safety of caregivers. Trust these folks to understand the dangers involved. I should have moved the kids sooner. Thank goodness for the professionalism of the Mexican Army in evacuating us when they had the opportunity.

      December 27, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
      • The Flamingo Kid

        You don't deserve to own and pets.

        December 27, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
      • DN3

        Wow – a post from someone with common sense! Yay! lolol

        December 27, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Florist

      What the heck weather channel are you watching??

      December 27, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  11. cpc65

    But natural selection in nature's way of weeding out the stupid ones, ESPECIALLY during and after natural disasters. If you feel compelled to touch your tongue to a down power line then maybe you were not meant to survive and pass on the Stupid Gene to future generations.

    December 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • The_traveler

      That's a good rationale for allowing downed wires to stay in place – or even just to seed some around to cull the populace.

      December 28, 2012 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
  12. Tim

    New Orleans was issued a mandatory evacuation less than 24 hours before the storm hit the city...you can't evacuate a major city like New Orleans in less than a day, takes more time than that

    December 27, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • cpc65

      Yeah, and Mayor Ray Nagin blamed FEMA for that, even though FEMA has nothing to do with evacuations. That was his and the governor's responsibility. I'm not trying to say FEMA did a good job, as they sure in hell didn't, but some of the things they did get blamed for were not within their domain. I'm surprised Mr. Nagin didn't try and blame the hurricane itself on FEMA and "The Man".

      December 27, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • VnsBored

        It was only for his "chocolate" NO folks...

        December 27, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      Evacuate??? They didn't want a 'certain people' to evacuate – they wanted elimination – it's funny when people say FEMA failed – they were just doing as ordered – if that was a bunch of 'white peoples' on those roofs you would have seen tons more helicopters & boats working frantically to save them – just my opinion but tell me I'm wrong!!

      December 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
      • Bryant

        you are wrong.

        December 27, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Florist

      They had legions of busses ready to move the ghe tto folks out of the city. They had prepared for people who couldn't afford to leave the city, and those people still declined. The reason given by many of them was that they hadn't been given their welfare checks yet, so they weren't leaving. It's easy to look back and say that someone was at fault or that they "couldn't leave," but the fact is that they could. It was actually pretty well organized. The aftermath- the intense urban flooding that lingered- was something that simply hadn't been encountered before. it took a couple of days to implement a new plan for getting the city back under control.

      December 27, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  13. kws

    I sympathize with the pet owner sitaution; that would be really hard, especially with a long history of false alarms. Telling the kids "Sugar has to stay here, and might die, because they won't let her into the gym," is not a conversation I'd like to initiate, and kids can make you do a lot of stupid stuff.

    Everyone else? We NEED a little natural selection put back into the world. Today the "un-fittest" multiply the fastest, and we do everything possible to encourage them and keep them alive (do we really need to print "do not eat" on that little back of chemicals that comes in the bottom of the BluRay player box?).

    December 27, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jay

    I'm honestly a little surprised that a majority of people throwing out labels like "stupid" don't even attempt to mention the fact they understand that some people either have nowhere to go or no way to get there. In some cases they don't even have enough money to get out. But please, allude to how smart you are while asking that rescue teams forget about those who were told to leave but didn't.

    December 27, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  15. boomer in Mo

    In the case of a tornado, you should shelter in place if possible. Running around to get to a shelter in a tornado is not safe usually. Right now, we are getting ready for an ice storm. Does not look like it will amount to much but we have drinking water drawn and the wood stove fired up, along with two cords of wood hauled in last week from the woods. We live on a hilll at about 700 feet above sea level. Not worried about floods. We don't have hurricanes here. But we do have blizzards, ice and tornadoes. I was cloud watching the entire Sunday that Joplin got hit; it was obvious something bad was going to happen somewhere. A couple of years before, it was us, with seven people killed in a rural part of Camden County. That's why we have a bolt-down steel and concrete shelter in the back of our garage. (It's bolted to the concrete floor and is outfitted with chairs, blankets, some supplies and lanterns. Anyone can have one of those; no need to go underground although underground is best probably.

    December 27, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  16. CW3Jaygo

    I think if someone refuses to evacuate they should pay a Stupid Tax on top of the "stupid tax" they are already essentially paying for staying put. $100? Heck, we'd not be in debt as a country if this were the case. As others have remarked, you can replace material possessions but you can't replace a life lost.

    December 27, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      It's not even the money. It's the fact that a brave fireman or policeman or helicopter pilot ends up risking his life to save a worthless dummy who thought they knew better and then has to be rescued from the roof of their hovel.

      December 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Mike

    Pets were allowed in public shelters in New York City.

    December 27, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  18. mdb

    Have to admit...I would not leave my pets behind to go to a shelter. Just couldn't....

    December 27, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Balls of Steel

      I don't think you'll get an argument with that. There is always an exception.

      December 27, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Ax

    Natural disasters are no joke. I cant play with my life like that. I leave. The material can be replaced my life and loved ones cant.

    December 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Balls of Steel

    If you stay when you are asked to leave, you also waive the right to be rescued. Our rescue teams put their lives on the line everyday and do not need to rescue your sorry ass when you fail to leave the area.

    December 27, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • bs1

      A good number of those who do not evacuate do so because they are prepared and don't need any "rescue" from you.

      December 27, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
      • Joe

        I would counter that a greater number of them are stubborn and/or stupid. I saw a lot of people plucked from their roofs during Hurricane Katrina who didn't look at all prepared.

        December 27, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Rob

    Krenzny, I doubt JMAX's comment was directed toward the "little old man" that lives alone. He said "stupid", not "helpless". Quit reading more into the comment than was written. The majority of people that decide to stay put in a disaster situation are not making wise decisions. But, because they decide to go against the better judgment of first respeonders and authorities it cost LOTS of money of fix their DUMB pigheadedness. I agree; hand them the bill afterward and make them pay it. "Little old men and women", and those who are unable to help themselves aside.

    December 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMAX

      Thank you..indeed the chronologically gifteds do not count..although, I will say this..if the fire and rescue or national guard comes to help the elderly vacate and then they choose not to..that is a whole other ball or wax I think.

      December 27, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Rebecca Hagemann

    Not everyone has a root celler. Heck I hardly know anyone that does around here (panhandle flordia). Tornados don't give you much notice like a Hurricane does. You hunker down and hope it doesn't hit you.

    December 27, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  23. boomer in Mo

    I'll admit, if there is a storm warning I go out on the porch and look for it. I have had storm spotter training years ago. We have a shelter in the house and we do go in it. Most recently in March when a storm tore up our nearly new roof and the siding on the house. Our dogs go into the shelter with us but if the cat is hiding, he is on his own. The local fire department has a drawing of our house, showing where the shelter is in case the house is damaged bad enough we cannot get out on our own.

    December 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  24. SAM

    There will ALWAYS be natural disasters, at any given moment throughout the year in any part of the country. Don't ever assume you'll have ample time to gather up your most prized possesions, load them up in the family truckster and head on down the road! You'll be lucky if you have a few precious minutes to grab your family/pets and run like hell to higher ground! Laziness is not an excuse! Love your family and increase your chance for survival by preparing and practicing ahead of time for whatever natural disaster is common in your part of world. Also, please go to the store now and buy and install fresh batteries for those smoke/CO2 detectors too!

    December 27, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |

    Really sad

    December 27, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  26. JMAX

    I strongly believe if you have been ordered to evacuate and you choose to stay and now have to be rescued..you should also be charged for the cost of that rescue and finding a place to stay is your own responsibility now..you just can't fix stupid.

    December 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Krenzny

      Tell that to a little old man who lives alone, has no family near and doesn't drive. They are going to take their walker and start walking to the nearest shelter to avoid your fine. No, they are going to grab their cat and hide in the closet until someone remembers them.

      December 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
      • Kiwi

        Hopefully thats when caring people remember their elderly neighbors and check on them or assist them to evacuate

        December 27, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |