After Hurricane Irma: Mass evacuation wasn’t convenient, but it worked

Emergency managers often fret that Floridians don’t take hurricanes seriously. That worry proved unfounded for Hurricane Irma, a monster storm that transformed even the most jaded among us into hypervigilant disaster planners.

In the largest evacuation in state history, 6 million Floridians fled their homes — and while some lived in low-lying areas at risk of storm surge or flooding, many who decided to evacuate weren’t ordered out.

“Whether they were in mandatory evacuation areas or not, a lot of people just left,” said James Lee Witt, a disaster planning consultant who was the longtime head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton.

The mass evacuation points to public policy challenges — managing traffic and supplying fuel chief among them — that state and federal emergency managers will have to address the next time a major storm menaces Florida.

Those who didn’t leave loaded up on gas, water and plywood well before the storm hit Florida. In Palm Beach County, long lines and fuel outages began on Tuesday, Sept. 5 — five full days ahead of Irma’s landfall on Sunday.

“Usually, Floridians don’t do anything early,” said Jeff Johnson, state director of AARP Florida. “People freaked out a little earlier than normal — which is great — but it was almost like our system wasn’t ready for everyone to act that early.”

The mass response to Irma led not only to shortages of fuel and bottled water but also to gridlock on Florida’s Turnpike, Interstate 75 and Interstate 95. Traffic jams trapped even those who thought they’d avoid backups by hitting the road after midnight.

To Gov. Rick Scott, the traffic tie-ups and fuel shortages were annoying — but also a sign that Floridians were heeding his exhortations to regard Irma as a grave threat. With winds that reached 185 mph for a time, Irma was the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.

“Evacuations are not meant to be convenient. They’re meant to keep you safe,” Scott said Sept. 7 during a visit to the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center.

Eric Holdeman, a disaster response consultant and columnist at Emergency Management magazine, sees apathy in the face of a Category 5 storm as the biggest enemy, and he also interpreted gas lines and gridlock as good news.

To Holdeman, simple arithmetic dictates frustrating evacuations: Florida is a disaster-prone peninsula with a population of nearly 21 million and just three major north-south highways.

“There’s no way to avoid it,” Holdeman said. “The day-to-day needs don’t justify having the capacity for a mass evacuation.”

In other words, why widen highways to accommodate a hazard that might come only once a decade? State transportation officials didn’t make interstates and the Turnpike northbound-only — a move that would have eased congestion but also would have complicated southbound fuel shipments, and would have required police officers stationed at southbound exits.

As annoying as the northbound traffic jams were, they were a small price to pay for moving millions out of harm’s way, emergency management experts say.

“The safest thing is to have people get out of a hazard area,” Holdeman said.

While Floridians responded logically to the threat of Irma’s record-breaking winds and potential storm surge, there also was an element of peer pressure. Holdeman points to the concept of “milling”: If a fire alarm goes off in a crowded room, everyone doesn’t dash out of the room at once. Instead, people wait to see how others respond.

“What people look at is what other people are doing,” Holdeman said. “If your neighbors are leaving, then you’re more likely to leave. Now, with social media, you can have digital milling.”

Or, in this case, digital fleeing. Facebook and Twitter filled with images of Floridians boarding up, hoarding supplies and heading out. Floridians responded so quickly in part because images of catastrophic flooding in Houston were fresh in their minds.

“Hurricane Harvey served as the initial onslaught of hurricane season, and it really woke people up,” said Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp. and a former undersecretary at the Department of Homeland Security.

The mass evacuation might have been messy, but Gerstein said it got the job done. But, he adds, after it seemed likely to make direct hits on Miami and then Tampa, Irma spared the most densely populated parts of the state.

“The storm didn’t materialize exactly the way people envisioned,” Gerstein said. “We were lucky in that sense.”

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