Why Do They Stay?

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Last week, as it barreled toward the Texas coast, Hurricane Ike passed 400 miles from our home in Orange Beach, Alabama. Located right on the Florida/Alabama line, our town saw docks and parking lots underwater as ten and twelve-foot waves broke onto our beaches. Pushed by fifty mile per hour wind gusts, the water flooded over the roads in several places—all this from a storm that had its eye on someone else.

We watched the news as Ike picked his mark, slamming into Galveston and Houston and all the little surrounding towns that get the same intensity of weather, if not newsprint. We saw the devastation and were amazed, as we always are, at how mean wind and water can really be. And we heard the question. You know the one … Why did those people stay?

According to some accounts, more than 140,000 people declined to evacuate despite the mandatory order to do so. Are they crazy? Yes, some of them, but no, not nearly all of them. You won't hear what I am about to reveal on the news, because for the most part, national news people do not live on the coast. Therefore, they don't know to ask the questions that allow a local to "spill his guts". But take it from me, there are some interesting answers to "Why Do They Stay?"

Today is September 16, 2008. It is exactly four years to the day since our house was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan. Because of this experience, my wife and I have a unique perspective on hurricanes and all the drama surrounding them. We evacuated about 48 hours in advance of that storm, having loaded both cars with pictures and family items we wanted to be sure to save if the worst were to happen.

Three days after Ivan struck, we were allowed to return to a house that, at first glance seemed not too badly damaged. Soon, however, we realized that the wind had taken most of the roof and even though we are on high ground, rainwater and salt spray had soaked everything. Water between the walls, in the air conditioning vents, under the floors, in the appliances and electrical outlets, in the insulation, between the siding and plywood … Everywhere water could go, it went.

It soon became obvious that everything was ruined. Furniture, clothes, pictures that didn't make it to the cars—everything. Eventually, a little bit at a time, our house was torn down to the concrete foundation and studs. We weren't as smart as some of our neighbors, who simply bulldozed and started over, or as fortunate as others, who didn't have enough damage to meet their deductible. (This happens. One house crushed, next door another virtually untouched.)

It took two years to get back into our house, another year to feel some semblance of normalcy, and after four years, we still haven't hung all the pictures on the walls, haven't replaced all the furniture, and our front yard still looks like Beirut. But we learned a lot. We learned a lot that I don't have the space or inclination to go into here. And we learned a lot that we would have rather not known.

For example, we (our neighbors and us) learned that dealing with certain insurance companies was worse than the hurricane. And I am not even referring to the classic insurance dodge where the wind insurers turn their backs saying that "water caused the damage", while the flood insurers refuse to pay after they determine "the wind caused it". That's just the first thing that happens. Insurance all sounds so simple when they accept your money and promise you that you are fully covered. Trust me, many of the people from the recent spate of storms will be trying to get their money a year from now.

Most people with "replacement insurance" believe that if their household goods are destroyed, the insurance that they have paid for like clockwork every month for years will replace what was destroyed. You know, the word "replacement" would lead one to think that … But no, that's not how it works. "I'm sorry, your bed and mattress were six years old. You see, we depreciate the bed and mattress and pay you what it is now worth. We will be happy to do that, of course, as soon as you provide the sales receipt."

And get this … not only do most people not have the receipt for their seven year old toaster, their four year old recliner, their clothes, their electric shaver, or each ceramic dish their Aunt Betty gave them for the past ten Christmases—they have been paying premiums for years based on the full value of everything they own.

Most of us waited an inordinate amount of time for adjustors to show up (for our next door neighbors, it was almost three months and no, I am not kidding). When we were assured checks would be sent, they were not. When they were, they often went to the wrong place. Or were made out to the wrong people. Or needed to be cosigned by some bank five states away we had never heard of that bought part of our mortgage years earlier. "You didn't know about that?"

Now look, if I continued to list everything we "learned" this would be a book instead of a blog. And know this: there are great insurance companies. State Farm, Aflac, Allstate, and several others did a terrific job for tons of folks. Our own adjustor was awesome and worked hard to help us navigate a crazy time. It is not my intention to rough up the insurance industry. But you need some background for what I am about to tell you. Remember? I wanted to answer the question, "Why do they stay?" Well, here goes …

1) Some of those who stay are nuts.

Lets get that out of the way. I swear that if I were a rescue worker risking my life to save someone who was told repeatedly to evacuate, I'd get in a few punches before I got them to safety. However, the media is absolutely no help in this regard. They say, "Get out! Get out!" But after the storm, who do they put on camera? That's right, Larry, Darrell, and Darrell. "You mean if I stay, I can be on TV?" Hey, you've seen reality television … never overestimate the decision-making process of stupid people who want their fifteen minutes of fame.

2) The media dramatically exaggerates the situation.

Storm after storm, people on the coast are told that "this is the big one." It rarely is. Coastal residents laugh at Geraldo Rivera stumbling forward into the wind because it is not really strong enough at that moment to hold him up as he is telling us it is doing. In 2006, as a Tropical Storm was crossing the coast, CNN told us "at this very moment, this very dangerous storm is crossing the Florida/Alabama line." I went outside immediately (remember, I live on the line) and walked around the neighborhood. One guy was doing yard work. It was cloudy, but not even raining! In any case, people simply aren't hearing the wolf cry any longer.

3) Government officials exaggerate.

Last week, the people of Galveston were told that to stay meant "certain death". Think about this one. They were not simply told that it could be incredibly dangerous or that snakes are looking for a dry place when the water comes up and that dry place might be you. They were told, "If you stay, you will die." Certain death. Well, some of the people who stayed did perish, but not 140,000 of them. And I can assure you that it will be even tougher to get them to leave next time.

4) People simply can't afford to evacuate over and over again.

It costs money to leave. Shelters are full to overflowing with the people who have no other options. Middle class families buy gas and restaurant food and stay in hotels six to ten hours away to find that (see numbers 2 and 3 above). After fleeing more than a couple of times, folks begin to take their chances.

5) Many of us would not have lost our houses had we stayed.

Now look, I don't want to read a bunch of replies about how irresponsible that last sentence was. I am just stating a reality that has been whispered from one hurricane ravaged town to another over the last few years. Remember, you don't live on the coast and are only seeing pictures of the very worst damage. After a storm strikes, assuming the house is still there (and the vast majority are), the people who deal with wet items immediately, often save their possessions—including the house itself.

In our case, we were not allowed back in for several days. By the time we got there, everything was ruined and there was no chance to dry anything out. Most of it was kinda dry already … with about a quarter inch of fuzz growing on it. Unbelievably, many of us then had to deal with an insurance company that said we had not done enough to take care of the items after they had been drenched. So … maybe we should've stayed?

Believe me, it runs through your mind.

All that having been said, we don't stay. We continue to evacuate if a storm comes near and urgently encourage everyone else to do the same. But it is a fact that Stan down the street stayed in his house during Ivan. And everybody in the neighborhood knows that Stan subsequently was able to stay in his house during the two years many of us rented multiple places to live as we rebuilt our lives.

As I said, I could write a book … There are a multitude of reasons and stories. This is by no means a complete list. But for now, we'll stop here. And while I am thinking about it … in your replies … Please refrain from asking that other question we get occasionally. I promise to take a whole blog to answer it someday.

"Why in the world do you continue to live there?"

Just wait … I really do have a good answer!

Your friend,
Andy


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