Those Who Can’t Afford to Evacuate for Disasters Need Support, Not Shame

Joseph Dupuis III stacks items off the floor in his parents water logged apartment on the St. John's River in Jacksonville, Fla. in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma
Joseph Dupuis III stacks items off the floor in his parents water logged apartment on the St. John's River in Jacksonville, Fla. in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. John Raoux/AP Photo

From hurricanes and forest fires to earthquakes and tornadoes, most U.S. residents are at risk for natural disasters of one form or another.

While it’s nearly impossible to anticipate some emergencies, advance warning about tropical weather, wildfires, jittery volcanoes and extreme cold emergencies do give people the chance to evacuate to safety.

Well, in theory anyway.

Why Some People Don’t Evacuate in Emergencies

People don’t heed evacuation warnings for a number of reasons, instead choosing to shelter in place:

  • They don’t want to leave pets behind and can’t find a hotel or emergency shelter that allow animals
  • They’re afraid looters will rob their unattended homes
  • They want to deal with roof leaks, downed branches or other small problems before they become huge
  • They lack confidence in the severity of weather forecasts or warnings from local government officials
  • They simply can’t afford it

These are all valid reasons, but I want to talk about that last point in particular.

Evacuating your home is expensive. Even if you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, the costs involved in packing up and leaving at a moment’s notice can be downright prohibitive.

What It Costs to Evacuate in an Emergency

The amount you’ll spend to dash to safety in an emergency depends on a number of variables, including the size of your family, how many pets you have, whether you can stay with friends or family instead of a hotel, and so on.

No matter what, though, it won’t be cheap.

My husband and I recently fled our home with four pets ahead of Hurricane Irma. We were fortunate to be able to stay with friends instead of booking a hotel, but it still cost us a small fortune.

Here’s a breakdown of our expenses:

  • Gas for two cars (round trip): $100
  • Non-perishable food and incidentals: $200
  • Extra pet food and supplies: $25
  • Extra medication refills: $80

The total: $405

We had reliable cars plus a large stock of bottled water, batteries and flashlights in the emergency prep kit that we took with us. If we hadn’t, our expenses would have been even higher.

For additional peace of mind, our employers allowed us to evacuate without worrying we would lose our jobs. Others weren’t so lucky.

The bottom line: Some people risk their jobs and extreme financial hardship if they choose to evacuate ahead of an emergency.

It’s a terrible position to be in and certainly not an easy decision to make.

The Stigma of Being Poor During an Emergency

People who lack the financial resources to get out of harm’s way during an emergency face a multitude of conflicting issues.

The shame of being poor often keeps people from asking for the help they need to evacuate, yet people who don’t evacuate are often vilified for staying.

It’s a senseless situation that makes an already stressful experience worse.

“You should probably not try to guilt people into leaving unless you are willing to buy plane tickets for the whole family including the dogs and also fly down and help with the storm prep,” suggests Miami resident Connie Ogle.

What to Do When You Can’t Afford to Evacuate

If you need or want to evacuate your home ahead of an emergency but can’t afford it, keep these five things in mind:

1. There is no shame in your game. A lot of people are struggling to get by under the best of circumstances — including people around you that you’d never suspect — so evacuation expenses can be a significant additional burden for many people. You aren’t alone so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

2. Consider seeking temporary shelter for your pets. It can be unthinkable to be away from our pets when they need us — and we need them — most, but it might be necessary if it’s the best way to keep all of you safe.

A number of people I know offered to take in their friends’ pets while evacuating during Hurricane Irma, freeing their owners to seek shelter in places animals weren’t allowed.

3. Offer to house-sit in a non-evacuation zone. Some people don’t need to evacuate but are already out of town when an emergency looms or simply choose to wait it out far from home. Let friends know you’re willing to keep an eye on their home and help with prep and clean-up in exchange for a safe place to stay during the crisis.

4. Monitor your local information channels. Local governments pull out all the stops to reach residents during an emergency. Check local news channels and citizen information centers for what to do if you need help evacuating. Ahead of Irma, Florida Gov. Rick Scott pleaded with residents, “We cannot save you when the storm starts. So if you are in an evacuation zone and you need help, you need to tell us now.”

5. Be willing to rely on the kindness of strangers. There will always be opportunists who try to take advantage of people during an emergency. Fortunately, there are far more people willing to help others out of a jam whether they know them or not. Check with local churches and aid organizations to see what private shelter opportunities are available near you.

Evacuating your home ahead of an emergency is an anxiety-filled situation that cuts across economic and social lines, so don’t let your financial situation keep you from asking for assistance if you need it. You’d be surprised how many people want to do what they can to help.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s evacuated ahead of two major hurricanes and is always gratified by how quickly people come together in a crisis.