The message couldn't have been clearer to the people of south Florida: Get out now.
Hurricane Irma had already cut a lethal swath through parts of the Caribbean and was bearing down on the Florida peninsula, a "nuclear hurricane" of unprecedented size and power. Homeless people were directed to local shelters. Miami police, enforcing a mandatory evacuation order, drove slowly through neighbourhoods and repeated the message to residents on loudspeakers: Get out now.
Even radio host Rush Limbaugh, who knows a thing or two about hot air and blustery winds, and who had recently denounced the Irma warnings as overblown climate-change hype, prepared to evacuate. Residents of the Florida Keys were told no one would answer their 911 calls, and that they were "crazy" if they stayed.
They'd have to be crazy to stay, right? Well, no. They could also just be poor. In order to flee, you have to have somewhere to go, and the money to get there. The line of cars snaking up the interstates, or waiting outside gas stations in West Palm Beach, provided visible proof of an income divide that is often hidden, and becomes visible in times of crisis: Some people have cars, and money for gas, motels, meals, pet food. Other people don't. It's hard to imagine how vast a sum $50 can seem if you've never been short $50.
Hurricane Harvey, a catastrophe already pushed off the public radar, offered valuable insights into how difficult it can be for poor, disabled, elderly or undocumented people to flee a natural disaster. A woman named Judie McRae, who sheltered from Harvey in her Texas mobile home, told the BBC: "I had some problems getting out of town, a little broke and stuff, so I had to come home and, you know, tough it out. We're all the working-class people." She added, "We're the ones who go to the restaurants and wait on you and pick up your trash and do all that work. We don't have a lot of money."
The Washington Post did an extraordinary story on a run-down building complex in Houston that floods regularly, is filled with mould, and whose residents have to pay rent whether they're knee-deep in water or not. They didn't have the luxury of evacuating during Harvey, and instead carried sodden mattresses to the top floors of the building: "There were few around here who stockpiled food and drinking water to wait out the storm," the Post story said, "because stockpiling requires extra cash, and extra cash is not a luxury they have."
There were shelters provided in Houston, and there are shelters in Florida, but some people may not want to use them. They may fear break-ins at the homes they left behind. They may fear the state – undocumented people might worry their papers will be checked. (Although U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said it won't be rounding up people during disasters like Irma and Harvey, it would be hard to take such promises seriously if you were, say, a DACA recipient facing the end of your dream.)
The sheriff of Polk County, Fla., announced his big-hearted response to the historic hurricane on social media: "If you go to a shelter for Irma and you have a warrant, we'll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail." So if you've got some outstanding parking tickets, best stay home and pray for the best.
After Hurricane Matthew swept through the southeast United States last year, freelance writer Chris Morris wrote a piece for CNN totting up the cost of fleeing Charleston, S.C., with his wife, daughter and dog. Less than a week away from home cost $2,715. That's a lot of money for someone who isn't, say, Rush Limbaugh. And the effects of climate change will only increase the number of events that require evacuation, like the hurricanes in the U.S. or wildfires in the Canadian West.
Some of the people who try to ride out a natural disaster will be cowboys doing it for the thrill, or the feeling of self-sufficiency. But there will be many others who simply do not have the luxury of mobility, and will be demonized: Why the hell didn't they just go?
After Hurricane Katrina, academics at Northwestern and Stanford universities published a paper looking at how those left stranded by the storm viewed themselves, versus how they were seen from the outside. "When asked to describe survivors, the majority of observers – relief workers included – referred to people who evacuated as 'self-reliant' and 'hard-working,' while they denigrated those who stayed behind, calling them 'lazy,' 'negligent' and 'stubborn,'" the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern noted in a statement. But the people interviewed for the study who stayed behind during Katrina saw themselves differently: They valued not independence but interdependence – that is, a sense of community and a belief in helping others affected by the storm.
The upside of natural disasters – if it's possible to consider such a thing – is the way they highlight individual acts of compassion and bravery. But they also reveal structural cracks that run through society, which are disastrous but not natural. Those are entirely man-made.