By Jasmine T. Cruz, Reporter

Why don’t they evacuate?

Posted on November 15, 2013

No one can realistically say we weren’t prepared. Days before Yolanda struck, warnings were aired, supplies were stocked, people were evacuated. The President went on TV to urge people to get out of the way. And many did.

RESIDENTS sit marooned on their rooftops after Typhoon Nalgae flooded the town of Calumpit, Bulacan, on Oct. 2, 2011. There are several reasons people do not evacuate to safer areas in the face of danger. -- AFP
And yet, the day before the storm struck, a TV station aired an interview with a family in its path, tying down their nipa-roofed house to sturdy coconut trees, and telling the reporter that they were not evacuating. What happened to them is anyone’s guess. As we eventually, sadly, learned, no preparations or warnings or evacuations could match the storm’s fury. But consider that family, completely and utterly unprepared to withstand 300 km winds and a storm surge that drowned people in buildings’ second stories. Multiply that family by the hundred, by the thousand.

This is not the first time we heard of people who, in the face of danger, whether it is a flood, a landslide, an earthquake, or even a volcanic eruption, resist the advice to evacuate, or start calling for help only when the natural disaster has escalated.

Then there are those who live in areas where natural catastrophes are regular occurrences. They are used to evacuating, then, after things calm down, they return to their homes with full knowledge that they might have to evacuate again in the future. Why don’t they move to a less dangerous place away from the fault line, or the landslide-prone slope, or areas which flood, that are often hit by storms, or near a volcano?

Refusing to evacuate is not a Filipino phenomenon -- it happens everywhere, even in first world countries such as the United States.

In a Stanford University and Princeton University research article "Why Did They ‘Choose’ to Stay? Perspectives of Hurricane Katrina Observers and Survivors" (Psychological Science: A Journal of The Association for Psychological Science, July 2009, vol. 20) by Nicole M. Stephens, MarYam G. Hamedani, Hazel Rose Markus, Hilary B. Bergsieker, and Liyam Eloul, the researchers investigated why, despite warnings from government officials, there were people who decided to remain in New Orleans, hoping to ride out Hurricane Katrina.

After the onslaught of what is considered one of the deadliest hurricanes in America, some people were unsympathetic to the plight of those who didn’t leave their homes beforehand. Unconvinced that those who stayed didn’t exercise their agency and made an illogical choice, the researchers began interviewing those who left ("leavers") and those who stayed ("stayers").

"We hypothesized that stayers were not passive but agentic (i.e., acting in the world), in ways that were appropriate to their contexts," said the study.

The researchers found that the leavers had more money, education, access to news, more likely had a car or other options for transportation, and had friends or relatives in other parts of the country. Stayers were more challenged in all of the mentioned areas, and thus were unable to act on the call to evacuate.

The researchers also interviewed observers of the catastrophe (rescue workers and people from different parts of America) and asked their opinion about the "leavers" and "stayers." Despite being informed that stayers had all of those practical challenges that kept them from leaving their homes, observers still described stayers negatively by using words such as "lazy," "stubborn," and "negligent." Observers had mostly good words to say for the leavers, describing them as "hardworking," "self-reliant," and "responsible."

The researchers realized that the observers had their preconceived notions on what was the "right" thing to do in this situation.

"Notably, this type of unintended cultural discrimination may be even more potent and pernicious than traditional forms of prejudice because it is built into and legitimized by the cultural fabric of American society and is thus particularly dif�cult to recognize," the study said.

The leavers and the stayers adhere to different models of human agency, said the researchers. For the leavers, they conform to the "disjoint" model of human agency, meaning they emphasize independence and the need to influence their environment by making choices. This is something that is often seen in mainstream American culture and in middle-class Americans, said the study.

The stayers follow the "conjoint" model of human agency, which focuses on interdependence and making choices to adapt to the environment. This is often prevalent among working-class Americans, explained the study.

Stayers thus valued being with their neighbors and friends, expressing solidarity and support, believing in one’s strength, and putting their trust in God. "We’re all in this world together, and we’re stronger together," the study quotes a stayer. "You have to be so strong-minded to survive," explained another stayer in the study. "You do the best you can do, and if you fail, you get up again. That’s all you can do."

In an e-mail to BusinessWorld on Nov. 11, one of the study’s authors, Dr. Hilary Bergsieker, explained how their research can be applied in the Philippine context.

She took pains to note that their findings are not strictly universal, as in some cultures the middle class and working class can both follow either the conjoint or disjoint model.

"However, there is a broadly applicable pattern that people who are accustomed to having more societal influence and resources will be more likely to interpret their own outcomes as individually determined results of free choice, whereas people who are accustomed to disadvantage and needing to rely closely on others in their community to meet day-to-day needs will tend to see their outcomes and actions as in part collectively determined by others," she said.

When it comes to Filipinos, Dr. Bergsieker said that the American working class and the Filipino working class have similarities. Her basis is a study on how Filipinos’ religiosity affects valuing achievement ("Religiosity, Values, and Horizontal and Vertical Individualism-Collectivism: A Study of Turkey, the United States, and the Philippines" by Cem Safak Cukur, Maria Rosario de Guzman, Gustavo Carlo from the Faculty Publications, Department of Psychology of the University of Nebraska -- Lincoln).

Dr. Bergsieker explained that the study discovered that Filipinos who are more religious are "potentially more oriented toward valuing devout faith than striving for individual success."

"These results suggest to me that, on average, Filipino individuals confronting a storm -- especially those who are higher in religiosity -- may be more likely to adopt a conjoint mindset in evaluating how to respond, opting to rely on others (and God) for support," she said.

THE SUN sets over a house damaged by Typhoon Yolanda outside the airport in Tacloban, Leyte on Nov. 12. -- AFP

"Some may argue that religious belief is irrational, but that claim is best suited for scholars in philosophy or theology to dispute," she continued. "As socio-cultural psychologists, we are making the claim that -- at least insofar as individuals do indeed believe in a caring, protective, and powerful God -- relying on God for support in a storm is a psychologically rational response for believers to adopt.

"Such reliance on God may seem irrational if one does not believe in a God who can personally intervene to protect people, but there is no internal or inherent contradiction between believing in and relying on God," she explained.

"For leaders and policy makers to effectively protect citizens during a disaster, it is important to understand people’s subjective understanding of their situation," Dr. Bergsieker said. "For people who are culturally oriented toward conjoint agency -- based on many factors, including faith and learned loyalty to others -- evacuating may not seem like a safe or wise course to the same extent that it does for those who see their actions as disjointed from others."

There are several social, political, and economic factors that influence people’s decisions to stay behind during a natural disaster, said sociologist Dr. Emma Porio, chairperson of Ateneo de Manila’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, in a phone interview with BusinessWorld on Nov. 12. Through her research on informal settlers, she discovered how stayers evaluate their chances during a natural disaster.

Some might think that these people are "stupid" for staying despite an upcoming catastrophe, but Dr. Porio said that these people are rational.

"It’s just their structure of rationality is different," she said.

Some reasons might not be good reasons for people with more means, but in the context of their poverty-stricken lives, these decisions make sense.

Dr. Porio said that these people are afraid that if they leave, when they come back all their belongings will be gone because their absence was taken advantage of by thieves. The disaster could also compel people to desperately look for any means of sustenance, much like what happened in Leyte after the onslaught of Yolanda.

Some might wonder why these individuals are more concerned about protecting their belongings than protecting their lives, but Dr. Porio said that they do calibrate their possible gains and losses.

"We have to understand the perspective of each stakeholder," explained Dr. Porio. "Their most valuable possession might be just a stove, so of course you’ll guard it."

Even the parts of the stuctures of their houses can be stolen. Some informal-settlers told Dr. Porio that wooden posts and stairs were stolen when they evacuated. "Kahit barong-barong lang pero pinaghirapan mo (Even though it’s just a shanty, but you worked hard [to build it])," she said.

People who have never experienced what it’s like to be this poor might not understand how important it is to protect one’s belongings.

In addition, relying on the local government to put a halt to looting is difficult. Dr. Porio recalled an instance when, after a disaster, a barangay captain was also looking for his missing children so his attention was divided.

Underestimating a threat is a product of a lack of experience. Dr. Porio said that because Marikina residents experienced the wrath of Ondoy, the residents now take the alert sirens seriously. Before Ondoy, whenever Dr. Porio conducted surveys in the area, people would tell her, "Wala namang namamatay sa baha (No one dies in a flood)" -- but after Ondoy their opinions changed.

"Experience is the best teacher," said Dr. Porio, but later she lamented, "Kailangan pa bang may mamatayan bago sumunod tayo sa batas? (Do we need someone to die so we will follow the law?)," she said. "But it seems like [it is]."

Commenting on those who stay because they trust in God’s will or they have the bahala na attitude, Dr. Porio said, "There is that element. What we need to do is to get them into a prepared bahala na. We have to elevate [it] to that level."

A MAN looks at debris of destroyed houses in Tacloban, eastern island of Leyte, on Nov. 10. -- AFP

She said that through experience and information, people will be moved to prepare, and then beyond that, they can leave their fate to God.

It’s also a matter of presenting people with convincing options, Dr. Porio explained. The horrors of the evacuation center give people another disincentive to leave the comforts of their home. There are, she noted, evacuation centers where there is but one bathroom per 200 evacuees. The overcrowded evacuation center is also where diseases spread easily, so why would they want to transfer someplace where they’ll just get sick? Thus people try to see if they can stay in their houses as long as they can.

Sometimes not even evacuation centers are safe from the storm, said Dr. Porio, referring to the sports complex in Kalibo, Aklan, whose roof was torn off by Typhoon Yolanda’s wind.

The resistance to evacuation also creates tension between the residents and the rescuers, she noted. The rescuers are often just waiting for the residents to ask for their help. The residents will only do so when the flood is already high. When the flood is deep though, the currents become strong, which makes rescue harder. At that point, not only are the residents’ lives at risk but the rescuers’ are also. Because of this, Dr. Porio said she understands why local government officials can get angry at the stayers whom the officials view as hardheaded.

Permanent relocation offers a similar challenge, she said. Some people who are relocated go back to the city because the relocation site doesn’t fulfill their needs. Dr. Porio said that people tell her, "May bahay ka nga wala ka naman makakain (You have a house but you have nothing to eat)," because these areas are far from livelihood opportunities.

What happens is that people stay in their disaster-prone area and learn to cope with catastrophes. Dr. Porio cites the flood-prone area CAMANAVA (Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas, Valenzuela) where she said that some residents have set up pulleys in their houses. When the inevitable flood comes, they put everything in a basket, and raise it above the water using the pulley.

In the end, Dr. Porio likened the situation to Sisyphus of Greek mythology. Sisyphus was punished by the gods to push the same rock up a hill over and over again. It is the same with how these individuals deal with natural catastrophes, explained Dr. Porio.

"All they can do is to prepare and aim for less damage."