Is it ethical to defy evacuation orders?

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the barrier islands of New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie gave stubborn residents one more … Continued

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the barrier islands of New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie gave stubborn residents one more thing to worry about. Their decisions to defy evacuation orders, he suggested, were “selfish” and morally unjustified.

“This is putting first responders in significant, significant danger” as they prepare to rescue the uncooperative, the Republican governor said last weekend (Oct. 28). “It is not fair to their families for you 1/8on the islands3/8 to be putting them in that danger because you decided that you wanted to be hardheaded.”

As storm cleanup continues, so also does the moral debate. The idea of evacuation as a moral duty has gained traction among some local officials, theologians and hurricane survivors. But others find the notion misguided, uncompassionate and a threat to individual liberties.

The issue hits a tender chord since rugged individualism is a defining value of American culture. But megastorms like Sandy are fueling conversations about the limits of that ethic, as they expose how interdependent people ultimately are.

“There’s a need to have a discussion about this,” says the Rev. James Keenan, a moral theologian at Boston College. “We need to educate people that morally, you can’t simply say,’I’m not going.’ It’s not simply a matter of choice. It’s actually a matter of responsibility to the common good.”

Keenan admits that a rare few might be justified in not evacuating: those with autistic children, for instance, or those with weak immune systems. But nearly everyone who can leave has a duty to do so, he says, lest they unnecessarily put rescuers in harm’s way.

Some hurricane survivors agree. As Hurricane Katrina neared landfall in 2005, Andrew Price cancelled plans to evacuate New Orleans when his mother refused to go. A helicopter rescued them after five days. At refugee centers, he saw what police confronted among those who didn’t evacuate. Lawless types stole food and water, plotted rapes and threatened officers who were overwhelmed. In hindsight, he wishes he’d taken his mother by force and evacuated.

“When I think of the police officers and the Coast Guard who had to come and rescue us, I think you’re behaving immorally if you have plenty of warning and decide to ignore it,” says Price, who now lives in Atlanta. “Sometimes the greater good trumps personal rights.”

But other storm survivors say it’s not so simple. Deidra Hodges could have left New Orleans before Katrina hit, she said, but decided to ride it out with her two middle school-aged children. She was on a tight budget and couldn’t afford a hotel room. She never expected to require a helicopter rescue, she says, and challenges those who deem evacuation a moral imperative.

“It’s harsh to be really judgmental or critical of someone 1/8without3/8 understanding why they’re making the decision to stay,” says Hodges, author of “Hurricane Katrina: One Family’s Survival Story.”

“Some people are alone; some are elderly. There are just a lot of people who don’t have anywhere to go or the means to travel.”

At times, those who refuse to evacuate feel a moral responsibility to hunker down. When Hurricane Sandy hit, Mark Denhard of Ocean City, Md. told CNN’s HLN network: “I’m just here trying to protect my family and my property and a bunch of my neighbors’ properties.”

Moral justifications to ride out dangerous storms can vary. Some stay put to look after elderly neighbors who can’t evacuate, or to care for pets who would be unwelcome in many hotels, according to Ray Nothstine, managing editor of the Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty magazine. He says individuals must weigh various factors, from the likelihood of requiring rescue to the value of defending personal property; they can’t just let officials decide for them.

“Anytime there’s drastic government encroachment, even in the case of mandatory evacuations, you’re going to see your level of liberty erode,” Nothstine says.

What’s more, some say rugged individualism has a moral dimension that isn’t always fully appreciated.

“The spirit of individualism that says,’I’m going to wait this out and I’ll be fine’ is the same spirit of individualism that says,’It’s not government’s problem, it’s our problem’,” says Rita Kirk, director of the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University. “And so we’re going to make sure needs get taken care of.”

It’s unclear whether discussions about moral duty and interdependence will affect thinking beyond disaster preparedness. But as long as big storms keep captivating the public attention for days or weeks on end, Kirk says, Americans will keep seeing up-close how individual decisions have wide ripple effects.

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  • Joel1

    Is it ethical? I don’t think the question is about ethics, it’s about minimal intelligence. Those who ignore evacuation orders are competing for the Darwin Awards. If there is one area in which the government ought to be able to enforce it’s will, it should be evacuations. Take away eminent domain, but give the government the power to save the lives even of citizens stupid enough to want to stay put.

  • PhillyJimi1

    For those who aren’t familiar with the Jersey shore. Gov. Christie got into it with Atlantic City’s mayor about evacuation orders.

    Well understand most of the Jersey shore communities in the South Jersey area are affluent family vacation type homes. Atlantic City on the other hand has quite a few poor residents that don’t have the means to own a home let alone a 2nd vacation home.

    While it is easy to say “evacuate” it may not be so easy for certain people who can’t afford a $1 million home in Stone Harbor, NJ. Is it moral to just issue a command of “evacuate” and wash your hands of the ethical problem of fulling knowing that some people will be forced to be left behind in harms way?

    This isn’t a black and white moral issue. Sure there are some bone headed people who can leave but freely choose to stay behind and I am not talking about them. I am talking about the fire alarm goes off to evacuate the building but the elderly person on the top floor can’t get down without help. Do we not send the fireman to try to rescue the elderly person because they didn’t heed the alarms when it was safe to get down? Of course not. We would also not ask the fireman to commit suicide if it was too dangerous.

    When does it become ONLY every man for himself? Is the moral thing to do to ignore the “evacuation” orders of the fire alarm and walk up 3 flights of stairs and carry the elderly person down? It could be a decision that could cost you your life.

    I almost every case yes you should evacuate if orders are given but I am just saying there can be justified exceptions and there are no one size fits all solutions.

  • lepidopteryx

    I have a houseful of animals who would not be able to fend for themselves. I won’t leave them to drown or starve. I’ll stay and care for them as best I can, evac orders or no. But if I defy evac orders to stay with them, I don’t expect someone else to come in after me. I expect to be on my own after making my decision.

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