Flee A Cataclysm, Or Cling To A Doomed Home? Why People Stay May Surprise You
Saturday, September 30, 2017
When Boyd Coble heard the sheriff's deputy pounding on his door in Houston in the middle of the night, he rolled over and went back to sleep. Coble, who lives alone, except for his Australian sheepdog, Wally, knew all about Hurricane Harvey. He just didn't think his own home would flood. It never had before, and even if a little water did trickle in, Coble was pretty sure he and Wally could ride it out.
By the time the water was about 4 inches deep in his house, Coble says, things started happening. His floors were buckling, his stuff was floating around and Wally was having a hard time sloshing around in the water.
Coble, a retiree, wasn't doing so well himself. He'd stopped eating very much and his strength was starting to go. And yet, he was determined to stay home.
About 4:30 the next morning — on Aug. 29 — the sheriff's deputy returned to Coble's house, this time banging insistently on the front door. Coble looked out the window, and saw a boat in his front yard and a deputy on his stoop imploring him to open up. Once again Coble shook his head, "No thanks," and turned to go back to bed.
The deputy refused to leave, so Coble slowly got dressed and went to hear what he had to say. He recalls the officer looking at him and saying in no uncertain terms, " 'You need to leave now. Grab your most important belongings and let's go!' " He told Coble the water in that area could rise as much as 9 feet.
"I guess he scared me," Coble says, "so I got some stuff together, and my dog, and we went."
I met Coble the next day — in a shelter at the Al-Salam Mosque in north Houston. He was wearing a baseball cap — with the name of the oil and gas company where he used to work written across the top. Coble was pale and hunched, a wheelchair poised next to him.
He told me then that he regretted leaving his home and that he figured that "9 feet" was probably an exaggeration. I shook my head and said "Boyd, your floors were buckling, your dog couldn't get around. Why stay under those conditions?"
He gave me a gentle smile and said, " 'cause I'm a homebody."
His story is not unusual. Each time a disaster threatens and authorities try to get people to evacuate, a certain number refuse to leave their homes. They each have particular reasons; but in the face of impending doom, the arguments can sound thin.
In Puerto Rico, when a hurricane of historic proportions was on its way, some residents insisted on staying home because the evacuation shelters didn't have enough cots.
In Houston, Salma Rao and her husband Zulfiqar Sheikh told me they live with their elderly in-laws, so moving to a shelter seemed impossible. In fact, they were so determined to stay in their house that when the toilets started backing up and overflowing they chose to stop eating and drinking to avoid using the toilets, rather than move to a shelter.
Even the risk of starvation and dehydration were apparently better than leaving home.
It might defy logic to grip so tightly when the ship is sinking, but Clare Cooper Marcus, a social scientist and retired professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, says there is something profound behind it. Our homes are the keepers of our selves — our memories, our hopes, our dreams and pain. In some ways our homes are who we are.
Cooper Marcus spent 20 years exploring people's emotional relationships with where they live, and published her findings in a book: House as a Mirror of Self — Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home.
When she started the book, Cooper Marcus says, architects and designers weren't asking people how they "felt" about their housing. They'd only asked pragmatic questions — "Do you like the kitchen?" "How is that common area working out for you?"
Cooper Marcus wanted to help architects go deeper — to take into account the emotional relationships people have with their environment.
So, she launched a project for which, borrowing a role-playing technique from Gestalt Therapy, she met with people in their own homes and asked them to close their eyes and speak directly to the home. "Talk to it, tell it how you feel about it," she said.
One of the most dramatic patterns she noticed, as she talked to these people, were the striking parallels between their current homes and the homes of their childhood. Sometimes these parallels were positive — in the way, say, they'd decorated — and sometimes negative, as in never being able to relax at home, because their childhood home had been unhappy, a place they'd always tried to escape.
Whatever the experience, Cooper Marcus says, it was clear that the home and the many things in it held a value deeper than the thing itself. We don't tend to think of inanimate objects in terms of feelings, and usually not in terms of love, she says, until "we lose them."
One woman quoted in Cooper Marcus' book relates her personal experience of facing down such a threat. It was the fall of 1991. Fire was ripping its way through the hills around Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., and she and her husband were forced to leave home fast. She describes what happened that evening, after they left, this way:
"Through the night, tossing in an unfamiliar bed, I imagined my house fending for itself, like the little house in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. At dawn, when the fire had moved south of our neighborhood, we awoke, and my husband dialed the bulky hotel phone next to the bed. I heard the clear sound of my voice on our answering machine. After the beep, my husband whispered, 'Hello house, we love you.' "
To be sure, disasters don't seem to know about love, nor do they seem to care what else is going on in our lives when they strike. When Harvey rushed in through Boyd Coble's door in late August, for example, it found grief: Coble's partner of 30 years had died only nine months before.
Leaving home that night in the middle of the storm just intensified Coble's increasing sense of dread. "Bad things happen in threes," he remembers. "First my partner died, then came Harvey. I was just waiting for the third bad thing to happen."
One week later, Coble was back home. Everything was still a mess, the floors were ruined, the walls, the insulation, the rugs, the furniture. It sounds overwhelming. But as Boyd describes this to me on the phone, he sounds so much different than he did in the shelter — like a completely different person. He's energetic, brighter. And, he tells me, he's not waiting anymore for something bad to happen.
Everything is going to be OK now, he says — now that he is "back in his element." Now that he's home.
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