Six months after dangerous Hurricane Matthew buzzed up Florida’s Atlantic coast, storm experts are still debating why some people didn’t evacuate in the face of what became the 10th most destructive storm in U.S. history.
A clutch of coastal condo dwellers and beachfront homeowners refused to budge despite mandatory orders and unusual public pleas from South Florida hurricane hero Bryan Norcross and National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb.
They got lucky when Matthew delivered only a glancing blow, but how to better convey potential storm risk was a theme at Wednesday’s National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans where forecasters lamented ineffective messaging.
“I think it’s fair to say we have not had a successful storm from a communications standpoint in memory,” said Norcross, a Weather Channel expert who is credited with saving lives during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. “And when I say successful, I mean in the regard that people understood what the threat was.”
As Matthew bore down on the Sunshine State with 140-mph winds, Norcross taped a special message to his “friends in Florida” asking them to heed evacuation demands, while Knabb, backed by standing hurricane center staff members, made his own plea in a more personalized effort to reach people.
“It bothered us that we had to do that,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center. “It just seemed that people in Florida weren’t evacuating.”
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 for Matthew.
Nearly 8,000 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 were seasonal residents and hadn’t arrived yet.
Hurricane Matthew’s storm surge, torrential rains, and winds, did about $10 billion in damage from Florida through the Carolinas, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. The National Hurricane Center report on Matthew ranks it as the 10th most destructive hurricane to affect the U.S.
The storm was also directly responsible for 34 deaths in the U.S.
Speakers on a conference panel Wednesday were thankful there were relatively few deaths.
“But just because a bunch of people didn’t get killed doesn’t mean people responded properly to the risk they were in,” Norcross said.
Part of the problem is people don’t understand the damage storm surge can do, and therefore don’t see it as a risk. It’s one reason the National Hurricane Center is now issuing storm-surge watches and warnings.
“Culturally, in this country, we haven’t yet gotten afraid enough of water,” Knabb said.
Research has shown that people who don’t evacuate have misperceptions of the storm threat, said Jay Baker, professor emeritus at Florida State University, who has surveyed people in evacaution zones.
They say they believe the storm is going to hit them, but don’t think it will adversely affect them if it does.
“And that was true even for people a block from the water,” Baker told The Palm Beach Post in an interview after Matthew. “People are still more concerned about wind than water.”
Florida officials attending the conference said there were many successes with Matthew evacuations.
Andrew Sussman, Florida Emergency Management’s hurricane program and catastrophic planning manager, compared Matthew to 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. In Floyd, Sussman said people waited in day-long traffic jams trying to evacuate. With Matthew, he said people driving on Interstate 95 were able to maintain the speed limit.
“There were many days for people to prepare,” Sussman said.
But fewer people were asked to evacuate during Matthew because of improving forecasts and evacuation areas based on storm surge over wind. In Palm Beach County, only two of five zones were evacuated based on a potential worse-case scenario of up to 5 feet of Matthew-forced sea water coming ashore.
“The reason there was no loss of life wasn’t because everyone listened to emergency managers and because everyone did such a great job, it was because the storm stayed off the coast,” said Max Mayfield, former National Hurricane Center director and hurricane specialist for Channel 10 in Miami. “So before we pat ourselves on the back too much, it makes a huge difference in the type of storm you get.”