A major storm approaches, and evacuation orders are issued. Still, some folks choose to hunker down. Their reasons for doing so are varied — and confounding to emergency personnel.

By Jack Rodgers
From the September 2014 issue

stayorgo Stay or Go? - Delaware Beach LifeThere is no hiding from the wind of a storm that lashes in from the sea.

But that’s just what we were trying to do on a long ago late-summer afternoon in Rehoboth. The wind did not come politely to our front door and tap gently. No, it sounded like the proverbial train as it powered across a churning sea and slammed into that door, as if intent upon blowing it off. The wind shrieked in the eaves, tore limbs from the sycamore across the street and flung pine needles from trees that leaned like the masts of a schooner rounding the Horn.

We could also sense that the gentle rollers we had ridden with our blue-and-yellow canvas rafts the day before had been replaced with freight-car-size giants now pounding the shore. They landed with a BOOM you could feel through the windows of the cottage. We marveled at first, but in a few moments felt uneasy as cream-colored foam was driven down our street and the snug house no longer felt as secure. The adults quietly filled water containers, and the glances they exchanged told us they were second-guessing the decision to stay.

Viewed from a safe perch far from the storm, those who ignore warnings and evacuation notices may seem quirky at best and downright foolhardy at worst. As we watch footage of cascading stormwater pouring down streets or rescues taking place on some rooftop, the questions always form: Why would anyone stay for that? Who are these people that hunker down while others flee inland?

Turns out, those are tough questions for even the experts to answer.

“You have to understand that the way people process the response to threats is quite complex,” Joseph Trainor of the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center explains. “It’s rarely as simple as it would seem.”

Trainor, an assistant professor of public policy and administration, clarifies that, through a method known as personalization, everyone processes threats individually. “It’s not just, is this event going to happen? It’s more like, will it happen to me? Complicating that is something sociologists call ‘normalcy bias,’ where you take a perceived threat and understand it in context of something that you have experience with.”
Given those dynamics, it may be difficult for officials to drive home the message that a threat is different this time, especially if the person hearing it lumps in a Sandy-sized storm with run-of-the-mill northeasters. Of course, how one perceives these threats is often the result of one’s location, which means folks in the First State are sure to have wide-ranging responses.

Halfway up the Delaware Bay, for example, is Bowers Beach. During the halcyon days of the sea trout fishery, this little town was a bustling scene, where fishing shacks and crab feasts abounded. Like many coastal towns in the state, its demographics have changed, and many of the shacks and fishermen have yielded to vacation homes and well-to-do families. This shift is likely one reason that some folks there stay behind during storms — inexperience.

Kyle Miller has lived in Bowers Beach for a quarter of a century. During that time he has witnessed many storms, including the brutal 2008 one around Mother’s Day. He pulls no punches when discussing the threat such extreme weather events pose.

“There is no way I’d stay here if a predicted big storm was coming,” he says. “None. I mean, you’d have to be a real idiot to do that. I stayed for the Mother’s Day storm for the same reason lots of folks did — we didn’t know it was going to be that bad!”

That “hybrid hurricane” (so-called because a low pressure system that developed over land merged with another system coming up the coast) opened more than a few folk’s eyes about “riding it out” along the coast. Unfortunately, not all current Delaware residents were here then to learn the lesson.

“If you have spent any amount of time around the water here, you know what it can do and respect it,” says Miller, a lifelong angler. “Plenty of folks have moved to Delaware from other areas and may not have that same experience. A fellow down the street moved here from Connecticut and decided to weather out Sandy. When the impacts of the storm hit, he decided he’d had enough, jumped in his truck and tried to get out. Fortunately he got to the Bowers Fire Station, which is pretty high ground for around here. That’s as far as he could get. He spent the night in the fire station and I didn’t see him around here for another six months!”

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