Defying Ike: Why 140,000 stayed behind
They weathered the hurricane against the orders of authorities, to protect their property and way of life
Johnny Welch isn't afraid to admit that he put his life on the line in hurricane Ike for a rooster. Not just any rooster, mind you – a $1,500 Kentucky hatch, who wears his feathers like a king's crown.Skip to next paragraph
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Three years ago, after they'd evacuated for hurricane Rita, Mr. Welch and others waited nearly a week before authorities let them back into this unincorporated oil-and-fishing settlement in Cameron Parish. By then, all of Welch's prize chickens had died. "I was so angry I almost busted through the roadblock at that time, and I told myself I'd never let that happen again," he says.
After hurricane Ike pushed churning floodwaters 30 miles onto the so-called "Cajun prairie" of southwest Louisiana, National Guard and other rescue crews fought the elements for three days before reaching some 200 oil rig roughnecks, fishermen, and cattle farmers who ignored evacuation orders.
What rescuers found is an image that will confound and concern emergency managers everywhere after a historic storm where an estimated 140,000 people ignored dire warnings of "certain death" in the storm's path.
Despite vast devastation – boats on roads, trailers washed away, regional power outages – people emerged, waving their hands, welcoming, but hardly needing, the relief. So far, most of the 50 storm-related deaths have come far from the shore, although that could change as relief workers comb the vast debris fields.
Leaving can be worse than staying
"What this comes down to is that everybody's making judgments under lots of uncertainty, and everyone's making it differently," says Michael Lindell, an emergency management professor at Texas A&M University in College Station. "For some people, leaving can be worse than staying."
A strong current of individualism and self-reliance in American culture, distasteful memories of recent evacuations, a nascent survivalist movement sparked by Y2K and 9/11, and even youthful recklessness all play into why so many stayed for Ike, one of the most destructive storms in US history.
But down here on Moss Lake, Hackberry, a town of some 3,000 people and with an average annual income of $37,336, the calculation had less to do with foolhardiness and more with protecting property and animals.
"Survivin' is the name of the game down here," says storm rider Ernest Welch of Hackberry.
In fact, many of the holdouts here share a common distrust of government, intensified by a spate of recent hurricanes and ensuing political maneuvering about who can rebuild.