Psychology and Relationships

A psychologist explains why some people stay put and party during a hurricane: 'We are prone to optimism bias'

Members of the slow-pitch softball team Siteman/Pure play in the surf on Cocoa Beach on September 28, 2022, as the eastern coast of central Florida braces for Hurricane Ian.
Jim Watson | Afp | Getty Images

Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday on the west coast of Florida.

The winds intensified significantly as Ian neared land, making it a Category 5 storm, the most dangerous classification there is. 

"This is going to be a nasty, nasty day, two days" Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a press conference on Wednesday.

Although 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, some residents stayed put.

Others hosted or attended hurricane parties. 

A hurricane party is exactly what it sounds like: a party thrown before or during a hurricane by those who don't flee and instead hunker down.

They take place at apartments or bars and, usually, feature lots of alcohol.

On Tuesday, O'Maddy's bar in Gulfport, Florida was packed before police shut it down, according to the Tampa Bay Times

The urge to stay put — and sometimes get together — is both psychological and circumstantial. 

Emotional memory fades fastest

Many people can't evacuate for structural reasons, says Cara Cuite, an assistant extension specialist in the department of human ecology at Rutgers University. She researches communication about weather-related emergencies. 

"Not having transportation, or if you have a disability or have pets, any of those things can make it hard for folks to leave," she says. 

Plus, evacuating is expensive, especially if you don't have relatives or friends to stay with inland. 

Psychologically, it can be hard to imagine the gravity of what a natural disaster causes.

Even for those who have lived through a hurricane, it's hard to recall how bad it actually was, says Robert Meyer, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of Wharton's Risk Management and Decision Processes Center.

People will remember facts about the hurricane, but what fades from memory fastest is the emotional memory.
Robert Meyer
co-director of Wharton's Risk Management and Decision Processes Center

"People will remember facts about the hurricane, but what fades from memory fastest is the emotional memory," he says. "The horrors of experiencing water damage. Over the years the memory of that pain fades and it's the pain that would cause you to take action." 

It's hard for people to imagine their house underwater, he says, and the inability to conjure that image keeps fear of reality at bay. Especially when the reality is evacuation, something that can be inconvenient and expensive. 

People are also just naturally optimistic, he adds: "We are prone to an optimism bias in that bad things are going to happen to other people and not to ourselves in particular." 

'There is comfort in knowing you'll be with someone else'

When others aren't evacuating either and getting together to drink instead, that optimism increases, and can cause something called the herding effect, Meyer says. 

"Even if your neighbor doesn't know any more than you do, there is some comfort in knowing you'll be with someone else," he says. 

Ties to their community can also cause people to hunker down, Cuite says. Some people feel guilty leaving.

"People said it felt selfish to leave when they knew people who couldn't get out," she says. "You see more widespread resistance to evacuation and it's not as much a party as it is a very strong tie in the community that makes people want to stay as not to seem selfish."

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