What is the role of government in protecting people despite themselves?
The recent devastation wrought through most of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States by Superstorm Sandy in late October and early November this year the deadly combination of a hurricane, a nor'easter and the unfortunate simultaneous timing of a high-tide surge has been sobering. It affected millions of people. It caused flooding of homes and businesses. Strong winds downed trees that in turn downed wires, shutting down power grids and phone lines, causing fires and interrupting supply routes for essentials like food, water and gasoline. Today, almost a month after the storm, some people still do not have their power back.
Before the storm, some people were scoffing at the urgent weather forecasts, saying that this was just another hyperbolic, overblown prediction that would peter out into probably just a bit of rain, like the last time and the time before that.
Well, that didn't happen.
Lives were lost. Swathes of property were damaged beyond salvage. Early estimates of the costs of the storm put it in the $50 billion or more range, including property damage, loss of business and the increase in living expenses. That does not count the emotional toll for those who have to piece their lives back together.
We received plenty of early warning that this catastrophic storm was coming. Most of us heard of the storm at least a week before it hit. News outlets and government authorities were advising people in the path of the storm to stock up on essentials and be prepared for emergencies. Hurricane Sandy made landfall at the New Jersey shore late Monday night into Tuesday morning (October 29 to 30). Before it hit, on Sunday (October 28) New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered mandatory evacuations of the barrier islands of the Jersey Shore.
Not everyone evacuated. One man, a reporter for the Courier-Post, chose not to go because his wife refused to go. His wife refused to evacuate because they had three cats, one of whom "throws a hissy fit when she has to get into a cat carrier," and also one of their daughters and her children from Atlantic City, N.J., had decided to stay with them to ride out the storm. Their power went out, the floodwaters came halfway up their yard before the tide turned, they ran out of food and the bridge to the mainland was closed to traffic when they did think about leaving later. It could have been much worse, and was, for others. The man's wife still refused to leave then because she was worried about what would become of the cats if they were not allowed to return. We have to wonder, why couldn't they take the cats with them, hissy fit and all?
Partly in response to the reporter's accounting of his and his wife's reasons for staying put despite mandatory evacuation orders, the wife of a New Jersey first responder posted an open letter on her Facebook page addressed to the "jackasses" who deliberately chose to ignore evacuation orders and then later needed rescuing, needlessly risking the lives of first responders. This woman made a distinction between those who could not help being stranded and thus needing rescue and those who chose to remain in what was clearly predicted to be a dangerous situation.
So just how much action should government take to rescue those who willfully expose themselves to danger? And should there be some enforcement mechanism or penalty for those who violate mandatory evacuation orders in the face of predictable disasters or catastrophes?
In New York, anyone "who knowingly violates any local emergency order of a chief executive ... is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor," which can result in up to three months of jail time, per N.Y. Exec. Law §24(5); N.Y. Penal Law §70.15(2). Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not currently provide criminal sanctions for failure to obey a mandatory evacuation order. In North Carolina, anyone "who willfully ignores a warning regarding personal safety ... is civilly liable for the cost of a rescue effort to any governmental agency or nonprofit agency conducting a rescue on the endangered person's behalf," per N.C. Gen. Stat. §166A-19.62. In addition to statutory provisions, those needing rescue may be civilly liable if their rescuers come to harm in the course of the rescue attempt and, concomitantly, may not sue for harm to themselves caused by rescuers as they have assumed the risk of any harm that occurred.