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Whistling Through the Storm: Why Some Stay Behind

September 16, 1988|PAUL CIOTTI | Times Staff Writer

To public safety officials trying to save lives in hurricanes and other natural disasters, it sometimes seems as if people are nuts. While the officials are risking their lives to get citizens out of harm's way, there are other people who seem more interested in getting front row seats for the big event.

"Almost every major disaster has a convergence of tourists," said Claire Rubin, natural disaster research scientist at George Washington University. When Hurricane Allen hit Corpus Christi, Tex., in 1980, Rubin said, there were two streams of traffic going in opposite directions--the first the residents hurriedly evacuating the city, and the other the curious streaming in to catch the show. "Some people," Rubin said, "were even going surfing because the surf was up."

When hurricane Alicia hit Galveston, Tex., in 1983, said Ed Laundry of the Texas Department of Public Safety, not only would some people not evacuate their homes, they were standing at the water's edge waiting for the storm to hit. "We had to send state troopers to clear off the beach."

They Haven't Seen Everything

Perhaps the classic modern example of indifference to disaster was that of an 83-year-old resort owner named Harry Truman, who lived at the base of Washington's Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Although local officials made repeated trips to his house (including one desperate last-minute helicopter trip) to persuade Truman to leave when the previously dormant volcano began spewing steam and ash, Truman stayed put with his cache of whiskey and 16 cats. "No one knows more about this mountain than I do and the mountain won't blow," he told a writer for Esquire. But, as history has shown, on May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens erupted with a blast that buried Truman, his whiskey and his 16 cats under 210 feet of hot ash.

The problem with people like Truman, said Claire Rubin, is that when they get to be as old as he was, they really think they've seen everything--"I'm 75 and there never has been a volcano in my lifetime." But the reason Truman never saw it, Rubin said, was that the mean time between eruptions was 125 years.

Rubin has, she said, studied numerous disasters all over the country where authorities ordered people to evacuate. "And in virtually every case, a small percentage of people refused to go."

Some people, said Norma Gordon, a mental health consultant for Los Angeles County, are afraid their families will be separated if they leave.

Some, like Truman, think the public authorities are underinformed and overexcitable.

Sometimes they have been lulled into a false sense of security by previous events that didn't live up to billing. In 1980, when Hurricane Allen was bearing down on Galveston with Force 5 winds (the most dangerous rating), said George Kraft, senior planner for the city, authorities ordered the city evacuated. (Galveston is only 6 to 8 feet above sea level and life-threatening flooding was practically guaranteed.)

Although panicky residents fled the city for nearby Houston (traffic congestion was so bad the normal 45-minute trip was a six-hour nightmare), what really stuck in the municipal craw was the fact that at the last minute Allen veered off and hit Brownsville instead--but weaker than advertised.

As a result, according to Bill McAda of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, when Hurricane Alicia came bearing down on the city three years later, the residents tended to say, "Oh, another hurricane."

But Alicia wasn't kidding. "The hurricane pretty well cleaned off the western tip of Galveston Island," McAda said. Then it wound its way up the pike to Houston, blew out a bunch of windows in downtown skyscrapers, flooded low-lying areas all over the state, caused about $3 billion in damage and killed 21, including a motorist as far away as Dallas (a road sign blew down on his car), city planner Kraft said.

Other people are so worried about saving what little they have, they simply refuse to obey evacuation orders (in most states, according to Rubin, public officials don't have the authority to order people out of their homes). And in any case, the police have too many doors to knock on, Rubin said. They can't "spend a lot of time arguing with people."

Some people want to see first-hand what they've already seen on TV. The media, despite urging the public to take every possible precaution, often inadvertently undercut their warnings, McAda said, by having their reporters do live on-the-scene stand-ups while the surf pounds and crashes behind them. "Dan Rather," McAda said, "got his real start in TV working for KHOU in Houston, standing up on the sea wall with his hair blowing and the wind gusting."

Only Slab Remained

But perhaps the most maddening, to authorities, are those citizens who not only don't fear disasters but actually embrace them, either out of ignorance or some childish delight in seeing nature stamping its foot on such a grand scale. "We once had a videotape," McAda said. "It showed a group of people having a hurricane party (during Camille). Then the next take (after the hurricane) showed nothing but a flat slab (where their house once stood)."

People don't go to more than one hurricane party, Claire Rubin said. Once they've felt the fury and seen the devastation, she added, they aren't so thrilled anymore--"they're scared to death."

Or, as Texas Judge John Damon noted dryly, residents who insist on staying home to see Hurricane Gilbert first-hand at least ought to have themselves fingerprinted for convenience of authorities: "We want to be able to identify their bodies later."

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