Hurricane Irene, a potentially devastating hurricane is bearing down on the East Coast. Forecasters are warning of winds up to 115 miles per hour, storm surges of five to ten feet and as much as 15 inches of rain in some places.
The governors of seven states including North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey have proactively declared states of emergency.
Some North Carolina counties have already been evacuated; New York City is facing the prospect of major evacuations, and Governor Chris Christie has called for residents of New Jersey’s barrier islands to evacuate voluntarily.
East Coast hurricanes are unusual, but there is a precedent for massive destruction, as was the case during 1821 and 1938, when viciously intense hurricanes flooded Manhattan, killed hundreds and left tens of thousands homeless.
But while many, many people will heed the voluntary evacuation orders by Governor Christie, Bev Perdue and others today and over the weekend, others will refuse to budge and will try to ride out the storm.
Why? What psychological forces root people in place to such extent that they cannot be dislodged, even when confronted by the spectre of a menacing, killer hurricane? Why do they choose to ignore the sincere warnings of experts who see the risks of staying put as unwise or even completely untenable?
Like any other human quality—like intelligence, curiosity, anxiety and courage—people fall along a spectrum when it comes to denying rare, extreme danger.
First, a large percentage of people will resist believing that a rare and highly dramatic event could actually be unfolding in their normal, everyday lives.
That’s why it is so common when next-door neighbors or spouses, interviewed about how they could have missed the seemingly obvious signs that a serial killer was in their midst, will shake their heads and wonder themselves how it was possible.
Human beings have a kind of reflex denial that kicks in and seems to tell them, “This is real life. This is neither a psychological thriller, nor the movie ‘Waterworld.’”
This reflex denial may be essential to helping us cope with life on a daily basis. It allows us to get up every day and go to work or wash our cars, when, deep down inside, we must know that we could be struck down at any moment by a cardiac arrest or a stroke or doubled in over in grief by the loss of a loved one.
It may also be necessary to allow anyone to go swimming in the ocean during a season when a shark has ripped a swimmer to shreds.
Indeed, the highly successful book “The Gift of Fear” was based on helping people defeat denial and pay attention to their intuition that danger could actually be unfolding around them.
When it comes to danger some of the variations we see in individuals may be genetic, but a good deal of it may also be related to prior life experience.
In my experience as a psychiatrist, those who have repressed other traumatic events are most likely to deny the specter of one that is unfolding. If someone has buried all his feelings about the sudden death of a parent or has relegated to his unconscious mind all memory of being sexually assaulted at home, then that individual may be loathe to allow himself to be alarmed by even an ominous situation.
A woman who has built walls of denial to insulate her from the reality that her father’s addiction led her family to the brink of financial collapse, may resist any suggestion that the walls of her house could collapse.
Giving into highly charged, negative emotions has a way of unearthing more of them from the past; people with lots of them buried don’t want that to happen.
Another group likely to stay behind during Hurricane Irene, when officials are urging evacuations, are those who have had reason in the past to distrust authority figures. In their minds, a call to move to higher ground may be interpreted as a plot to take control of their lives or make the lives of others (like cleanup crews) easier.
Yet a third group more likely to stay behind in a dangerous hurricane are depressed people who consciously or unconsciously want to be swept away by a flood. They’re the same folks who are so stressed that they say to themselves, while flying on a plane, “If it goes down, so be it. I wouldn’t be to blame and I wouldn’t have to suffer, anymore.”
Finally, among those who will cling to their homes as Hurricane Irene roars ashore will be those who have “heard it all before.” They see government officials and meteorologists as “boys who’ve cried wolf” one too many times. And they may have grown up in households with overly controlling, anxiety-ridden parents who urged them to believe a calamity was around every corner.
There is always a why that explains seemingly inexplicable human behavior.
So, as the storm hits the East Coast this weekend and you look upon a woman unlucky enough to be standing atop her roof, ankle deep in water (after resisting calls to evacuate), you should know that it is no accident that she is perched there. -- Her entire life story will have led her to that very spot, at that very moment.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.