They chose their words carefully, deliberately.
- “This storm will kill you,” said Gov. Rick Scott, whose dire message was buoyed by Martin County Sheriff William Snyder’s ominous query about the number of body bags available for post storm cleanup.
- And when it seemed people still refused to evacuate in the face of possible 140 mph winds, The Weather Channel pulled out the big gun. Hurricane expert Bryan Norcross, who is credited with saving lives as a Miami meteorologist during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, taped a special message directed to his “friends in Florida.”
“This is like no storm in the record books,” Norcross said. “If you live in a Florida evacuation zone you need to head to a safe spot now. Do not assume you can survive if you choose to stay.”
Despite the warnings, Gary Freedman and his wife weren’t budging Thursday night from their 12th floor Ocean Trail condominium on the Jupiter Inlet, windows facing the Atlantic Ocean.
“The building supervisor told me the only hurricane damage ever was to a blown out window. I figured we’d be fine. And we were. We never lost power. We kept our internet. The TV stayed on,” said Freedman, who said about six other residents stayed in the 138-unit condo.
Hurricane experts warn against staying in higher-level condo units during a storm where hurricane-force winds can be exponentially stronger than at ground level.
Bill Kollmer, a former mayor of Juno Beach, decided to stay in his first-floor Bay Colony condominium on the east side of Intracoastal Waterway in Juno Beach. His sister, who lives on the waterfront in Juno Beach, came to his house during Matthew.
“I never thought of leaving. We have brand new construction. I took in the plants and the patio furniture. I didn’t hear a thing,” Kollmer said. Most residents stayed in the four-story building, he added.
What does ‘mandatory’ really mean for residents?
In Palm Beach County, 49,000 people in mobile or manufactured homes, and 90,000 who live on barrier islands or along some areas of the Intracoastal were asked to evacuate. Evacuation zones are based on storm surge, and hurricane center forecasters said a worse-case scenario could send up to 5 feet of sea water above dry ground in Palm Beach County.
About 7,560 people fled to the county’s 13 general population shelters, 184 stayed in a special needs shelter and 245 people were in the pet-friendly shelter at West Boynton Recreation Center.
Beyond counting heads in shelters, tallying the exact number of evacuees is a difficult task. It’s unknown how many people found safe haven in hotels, with friends, or who are seasonal residents and hadn’t even arrived yet from their northern homes.
Bill Johnson, director of emergency management for Palm Beach County, said he was pleased with the number of people who evacuated during Matthew. He judged success by the shelter numbers and what he saw in the streets — nothing and no one.
“Police officers were reporting that the roads were deserted and that’s a good sign,” Johnson said. “That tells me we weren’t going to be in a situation where people would be scrambling for protection.”
Palm Beach County’s evacuations were voluntary at first, but as Matthew neared, County Administrator Verdenia Baker announced they were changing that to mandatory.
While the mandatory evacuation has no teeth — no one is getting pulled from their homes or arrested for not leaving — the word itself carries weight.
Baker said that in about an hour’s time after the announcement, the shelter population grew by as much as 3,000.
“In the end, we were blessed,” Baker said. “The storm wobbled again right, and then again to the right. It gave us a bit more distance between our shore and the eye of the storm and that was just the luck of the draw.”
Will Matthew’s miss change safety precautions?
Others who reside close to the beach never took chances.
Suni Sands mobile home park resident Jeff Beiger said Matthew’s potential 5-foot storm surge convinced him to leave his mobile home, which is about 30 feet from the south side of the Jupiter Inlet.
“I’ve been through storms, but not a Category 4. My whole trailer could be under water,” he said.
Looking at the Atlantic Ocean about 100 feet from her third-floor condo on the south side of Pelican Lake in Juno Beach, Phyllis Santry said she would have evacuated even without the order from town officials.
“It’s not the rising water I’m afraid of. It’s debris flying around. I’ve been through hurricanes before as a child on Connecticut Sound. I know how dangerous it can be,” she said.
But caution doesn’t always win.
Business people who closed and residents who shuttered up and left town will remember the dire warnings that never materialized from Matthew. They likely won’t heed the next warnings to leave, said Ocean Trail resident Joanne Pisani, who spent the hurricane with friends in Palm Beach Gardens.
“It’s human nature. Next time more people likely will stay,” Pisani said.
That’s not a good idea, Juno Beach Town Manager Joe Lo Bello urged.
“There is always that fear,” he said. “Look at Hurricane Andrew. It was all set to hit Hollywood, and it went to Homestead. You always have to make sure residents are safe.”
Residents can’t let previous hurricanes’ effect their future actions, said Tequesta Fire Rescue Spokesman Peter Allen.
“I would hope that people would consider not what didn’t happen the last time but what could happen this time,” Allen said.
‘People just don’t understand what 140 mph winds will do’
Calculating how close Palm Beach County came to catastrophic damage from Matthew is a difficult task.
Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said Matthew had two eyewalls when it was east of South Florida as it underwent an eyewall replacement cycle. That cycle, where the inner eyewall is essentially eclipsed by an outer eye wall, is credited with jostling the storm to the north and farther from Palm Beach County.
At about 8 p.m. Oct. 6, McNoldy said the center of Matthew’s eye was about 75 miles away from the coast, with the outer eyewall just 35 miles offshore. The inner eyewall, where the strongest winds exist, was about 65 miles off the coast.
“People who have been through storms before, Andrew or Wilma, look at a storm like Matthew and say ‘My God, I’m not going through this again,’” said Hugh Gladwin, who has studied how people make evacuation decisions as an associate professor in Florida International University’s Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies. “But some people have trouble understanding the probabilities of what could happen and build up a cumulative doubt so that they don’t know what to do.”
Jay Baker, professor emeritus at Florida State University’s Department of Geography, has conducted years of research on how people behave during evacuation scenarios.
He said what has been most telling is that before the storm, people believed more strongly than forecasts predicted that they would get hit, but didn’t believe they would suffer adverse impacts.
“They just don’t understand what being hit by a hurricane with 140 mph winds will do,” Baker said.
Better safe than sorry doesn’t mean much to some
But the reasons why people don’t evacuate run the gamut — stubbornness, fear of thieves or vandals, ignorance of evacuation zones, and just plain running out of time.
Officials in Tequesta and Juno Beach, two northeast county beachfront communities where residents were ordered to evacuate, said the order calling for residents to leave was the right one.
“We were looking at a major potential loss of life if Matthew hit. We have a large diversity of homes here, from old-style single-family homes to (12-story) condominiums. It was too close to take a chance,” Lo Bello said.
While there is no way to determine exact numbers, officials from both communities agreed about half of residents stayed and half left the evacuation areas. Residents who stayed were taking a big chance with their safety, said Allen.
“We stop sending out fire/police department personnel when the winds hit 45 miles per hour. People who stay in their homes have to understand that,” Allen said.
Sheltered from storms
Palm Beach County shelter stays by hurricane:
2016 Matthew: 7,990
2005 Wilma: 4,900
2004 Frances: 18,156
2004 Jeanne: 12,288
Source: Palm Beach County Division of Emergency Management