Hurricane Hubris

Evacuating residents from the path of a storm is often a frustrating task for emergency officials.
by | June 2005

Despite dire initial predictions, New Orleans missed being hit by Hurricane Ivan last year. And therein lies a problem. It was a huge relief, of course, that the gale force winds and surging waters predicted for the city veered off to the east. On the other hand, the mild result after ominous storm warnings may have bred a dangerous complacency in residents who haven't seen a big hurricane strike the area in seven years now.

The 2005 hurricane season officially opens June 1, and once again officials must gear up for a six-month period of unknowns from Mother Nature. One of the hardest jobs they have is figuring out how to get reluctant-to-leave people cleared out of cities that are forecast to be in the direct path of a hurricane.

Florida experienced a devastating series of hurricanes last year-- including Ivan after it diverted from New Orleans. Four of them hit land, causing nearly $20 billion in property damage and killing 117 people. Despite mandatory evacuation orders in many places, large numbers of people stayed put during the storms. "Every place we collected data about Hurricane Charley, evacuation was not as good as emergency management officials hoped it would be," says Jay Baker, a geography professor and researcher at Florida State University, who is about to release a study on the subject.

When researchers asked people why they didn't evacuate, they offered two overriding reasons: either they didn't think the storm was going to hit their area or they thought their house would be safe even if it did. Other responses included transportation difficulties or being new to the area.

Many people said they didn't get the message to evacuate. "The best thing is to go door to door," Baker says. Some communities argue they don't have the resources; others use everyone from EMS workers to firefighters to deputy sheriffs to get the word out. "If someone comes to your house and tells you it is unacceptably dangerous to stay, you got the message, whether you listen or not," Baker adds. Another notification tactic is to go into neighborhoods with a bullhorn pleading with people to pack up and go.

Often it's difficult for officials to persuade residents to leave in the crucial hours before a storm arrives because sunny skies send a conflicting message. Some residents wait to see where the storm is going, but if they wait too long, they're not going to have time to get out. If people with pets learn that shelters won't allow them, they may decide to stay put with their animals.

Sometimes city employees working the houses make those staying put provide next-of-kin notification details or sign a document absolving the jurisdiction of liability in case of death. Those documents may have no legal standing, but as a scare tactic they are frequently effective in getting people to leave.

The study also confirms that when the evacuation order is mandatory, people are more likely to leave than if it's optional. Florida counties have the authority to make evacuation orders mandatory. In South Carolina, on the other hand, counties must wait for the governor to give the order.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, following a recommendation in a report on the state's hurricane preparedness, recently called for the legislature to give local officials the authority to order mandatory evacuations. The governor's office also plans to hold an evacuation exercise at the end of this month in the Houston/Galveston area.

Last summer's actual evacuation in New Orleans demonstrated that the state's plan to make all lanes of traffic on certain interstates go in only one direction--devised after Hurricane Georges in 1998--was good in theory but broke down in practice. Tens of thousands wound up in horrendous traffic jams and couldn't get off the highway where they wanted to.

This season, the state plans to print a million maps and aggressively distribute them with the hope that people plan how they're going to get out and where they will go. That way, they won't make hotel reservations in Houston and end up in Jackson, Mississippi. But even if they do arrive in an unexpected location, as long as they are safe, officials believe they will have accomplished something.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |