Why didn’t fam­i­lies evac­u­ate be­fore Har­vey? It’s ex­pen­sive

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS - Dick­er­son is a law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas.

In the com­ing weeks and months, peo­ple will con­tinue to ask why more peo­ple did not evac­u­ate when it was clear that Hur­ri­cane Har­vey would cause record flood­ing in Texas. Al­ready, crit­ics are ques­tion­ing why local lead­ers in the Houston and Galve­ston ar­eas chose not to or­der manda­tory evac­u­a­tions.

Even if there had been a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der in place for all the Texas coastal and in­land ar­eas rav­aged by Har­vey’s floods, thou­sands if not mil­lions of res­i­dents still would not have evac­u­ated. Some res­i­dents will al­ways stay be­cause they al­ways ig­nore evac­u­a­tion or­ders. Many of the 6.5 mil­lion res­i­dents of the Houston area would stay, given the fa­tal­i­ties that oc­curred dur­ing the dis­as­trous 2005 evac­u­a­tion dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Rita.

Oth­ers will stay be­cause of the price tag at­tached to be­ing safe.

Evac­u­at­ing is not cost-free. To evac­u­ate, you must have a way to leave. Peo­ple who do not own or have ac­cess to a safe and re­li­able car, or those who can­not af­ford to keep the car filled with gas through­out the evac­u­a­tion process, will stay be­cause there is no way for them to leave.

To evac­u­ate, you also need to have a place to stay. Peo­ple who do not have fam­ily or friends nearby with the space to shel­ter them and the dis­pos­able in­come to feed them will need to stay in a ho­tel or live in their cars. They will also need to buy and find a way to cook food, or pay to eat out for an in­de­ter­mi­nate length of time.

To pay the costs — trans­porta­tion, hous­ing and food, to name a few — as­so­ci­ated with an evac­u­a­tion, the evac­uee needs ei­ther sav­ings, am­ple dis­pos­able in­come or the ca­pac­ity to fi­nance an evac­u­a­tion us­ing short-term debt. All but the high­est-in­come fam­i­lies strug­gle to make ends meet even when they are not faced with what is shap­ing up to be the worst flood­ing event in U.S. his­tory. Peo­ple stayed be­cause they could not af­ford to leave.

Stud­ies and sur­veys per­sis­tently show that al­most half of Amer­i­cans have not saved enough to cover a $1,000 un­planned emer­gency such as a hur­ri­cane evac­u­a­tion. Only about 20 per­cent could use a credit card to pay for the emer­gency, and ap­prox­i­mately 10 per­cent could bor­row from friends or fam­ily.

Poor res­i­dents are un­likely to have saved enough to pay for a mul­ti­day — per­haps mul­ti­week — evac­u­a­tion. But, over 25 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who earn more than $150,000 an­nu­ally and al­most 45 per­cent of peo­ple who earn be­tween $100,000 and $150,000 also have less than $1,000 in sav­ings.

Without emer­gency sav­ings, Hous­to­ni­ans and other Tex­ans who wanted to flee their homes would need to fi­nance their evac­u­a­tion us­ing cur­rent wages. Un­for­tu­nately, the tim­ing of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey’s ar­rival on the Texas coast­line made it even harder for most peo­ple to af­ford to evac­u­ate.

Har­vey, like Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, made land­fall dur­ing the last week of Au­gust. Most lower-in­come fam­i­lies who live from pay­check to pay­check or who de­pend on gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance would have little — if any — ex­tra money avail­able to pay for an evac­u­a­tion. More­over, be­cause so many Amer­i­cans are paid bi­weekly or monthly, an end-of-month evac­u­a­tion poses ad­di­tional chal­lenges even for mid­dle- or up­per-in­come res­i­dents who lack sav­ings.

Res­i­dents who want to evac­u­ate but have no sav­ings need help from the pub­lic or pri­vate sec­tor be­fore the evac­u­a­tion. They need free or re­duced-fee short-term lodg­ing and short­term food as­sis­tance — even if they live above the poverty level — and they need some form of gaso­line as­sis­tance to help them fuel their cars for the evac­u­a­tion.

It is non­sen­si­cal to as­sume that most peo­ple could an­tic­i­pate or pre­pare for the un­prece­dented flood­ing that Hur­ri­cane Har­vey brought to Houston and Texas coastal cities. The risks of stay­ing in harm’s way may have been clear to peo­ple who chose not to evac­u­ate. Given the costs as­so­ci­ated with evac­u­at­ing, many cash-strapped fam­i­lies stayed be­cause they had no way to avoid those risks.

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