Irma forced mass evacuations; officials urge staying home next time

An estimated 6.8 million Floridians evacuated for Hurricane Irma. Some did so twice.

Subtle shifts in the storm’s path sent the east coast scurrying west, then fleeing north where landlocked Leon County ran out of hotel rooms and filled 10 shelters with people, half of whom were from other parts of the state.

Gridlock on Florida’s Turnpike meant a 20-hour trek into Georgia as lines of cars jockeyed to escape the Sunshine State, crushing traffic like an accordion against the border where driving on the shoulder was no longer allowed.

But Florida officials said about 3 million of those who left were not in evacuation zones.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Irma slams Palm Beach County

These so-called “shadow evacuees” may be encouraged to ride out the next storm at home in an effort to minimize traffic, extend gas supplies and increase available rooms at the inn.

It’s a nuanced message of emergency — “know your zone, know your home.” In other words, if you’re not in an evacuation zone, can your home withstand the forecast winds? And if it can, can you withstand what comes after the storm?

Those who stayed: ‘It was the ride of their life’

“It took some convincing, but if they were not in an evacuation zone, and they were in a concrete block house with shutters and a good garage door, why not stay?” said Jeff Farrell, a meteorologist with WINK News in Fort Myers. Farrell urged those people to stay put during Hurricane Irma. “The people who stayed, they rode it out, and it was the ride of their life, but they made it.”

Evacuations during the hyperactive 2017 storm season were a key topic at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando last week. With three hurricane landfalls, including two major hurricanes, in the continental U.S. last year, Florida was not the only state to have evacuations, but those escaping Irma’s wrath constituted the largest exodus of the season.

STORM’S WRATH: Social media posts when Hurricane Irma slammed Florida

It stressed the gas supply, not just in quantity, but in manpower as law enforcement was needed to escort fuel trucks to gas stations, and then escort station employees to safety so they could operate pumps until just before Irma came ashore.

It stretched shelter resources with 54 of 67 counties issuing evacuations and 338,000 people staying in shelters statewide.

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It tested patience. The state never put a cap on how much gas people could take, but officials at the hurricane conference lamented the “top-off” mentality where people filled every vehicle and gas can they had, and then continually topped off the tank in their escape vehicle leading to long lines at Turnpike stations that backed up traffic.

The average gas purchase during Hurricane Irma was $10, according to state and gas company officials who spoke during a seminar on evacuation planning.

“Normally we don’t want people to fill up until they absolutely need it,” said Kelley Smith Burk, director of the Office of Energy for the Florida Department of Agriculture. “All we can do is send out the message to be courteous and just take what you need.”

She escaped…and she’d do it again

Despite the tumult of evacuating, West Palm Beach resident Karen Babineau would do it again.

Although not in an evacuation zone, the 73-year-old said her brother in Palm Beach Gardens called the Wednesday before Irma made landfall on Sunday, Sept. 10 and told her to pack up — she was leaving with him and his wife.

“He said the storm was heading right toward us at 180 mph,” Babineau said. “He’s never afraid. He usually stays for everything and just says ‘poo-poo’, but he was afraid and I knew it was bad.”

RELATED: Four hurricane graphics you need to know before June 1.

At the Wednesday 8 a.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center, Irma’s cone had engulfed nearly the entire Florida Peninsula with the center track riding over Lake Okeechobee. Its wind speeds were noted as 185 mph. (The top wind speed would later be reduced to 178 mph in a post-storm analysis.)

It took Babineau 21 hours to get to Flowery Branch, Ga., northeast of Atlanta. It’s normally a 10-hour drive.

“I’ve seen what hurricanes can do, and I will never stay, I don’t care,” Babineau said. “I won’t stay. I will leave.”

The Florida Department of Transportation made several recommendations after studying the Hurricane Irma evacuation, including increasing the use of emergency shoulders for general traffic, adding electric signs with emergency information, coordinating with Georgia to open its emergency shoulders for traffic, and increasing the number of simultaneous users allowed on the department’s traffic website. It was designed to handle just 25,000 users at once.

Related: Official wind gauges went dark during Irma.

To increase access to gas, it was recommended that some stations in strategic traffic locations be allowed additional fuel capacity, and that Florida should coordinate with Georgia to reduce regulations for oversize and overweight vehicles during emergencies to deliver gas.

Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Marketers Association, said despite a crimp in the fuel supply line after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, there was “plenty of fuel.”

“Tampa had fuel, Jacksonville had fuel, Port Everglades had fuel, we didn’t have enough trucks or personnel to move it,” Bowman said. “Then say your daughter works at a gas station, and it’s under an evacuation order. Is she going to evacuate? Or are you going to leave her there?”

Harvey slamming Texas increased our fears

Harvey, which hit Texas as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25, dumped as much as 60 inches of rain in some areas, submerging Houston and forcing days of harrowing rescues.

The images of destruction were fresh in the minds of Floridians when a swirl of thunderstorms in the far eastern Atlantic became Tropical Storm Irma five days later.

Some emergency managers called it the “Harvey affect,” and Irma’s Category 5 rage for a stunning 60 hours escalated Floridians’ fears.

Add to that Irma’s approach to the state — treating Florida like a landing strip, rather than a speed bump — and people didn’t care if they were in an evacuation zone. They were leaving.

“We weren’t sure what it was going to do,” said Stuart resident Marc Henderson. “The hurricane seemed like it changed so much.”

Florida’s geography as a narrow peninsula means even a 40-mile change in course was the difference between sustained hurricane-force winds and 15-feet of storm surge, and spurts of less damaging tropical gusts and three feet of surge.

Henderson, who is not in an evacuation zone and lives in a new home rated to withstand gusts of Category 4 winds, wasn’t taking any chances. He packed up his family and headed to Georgia.

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“My back was completely shot,” Henderson said after the 20-hour journey. “Next time, we’ll stay.”

‘Is this going to kill everyone?’

Wellington resident Mike Brown had extenuating circumstances during Irma with children in college in Orlando and Tampa, and his wife in California for work. He evacuated Thursday with his youngest child and mother-in-law, picked his other two kids up and headed to Nashville to meet his wife, who had gotten a flight there.

On back roads, he made it to Nashville in 20 hours. It’s a trip that normally takes 12.

Coming back was worse. Twenty-one hours from Mobile, Ala. to Wellington — typically about a 9-hour trip.

“I probably would not do it again if I didn’t have to gather up kids all over the place,” Brown said. “I live in a nice concrete block house in Wellington and there was no reason to leave, but people didn’t know, they were asking ‘is this going to kill everyone.’”

Even emergency managers have mixed feelings about trying to curtail self-evacuations.

Sally Bishop, director of Pinellas County’s emergency management, said she tells her residents — many of whom are retirees — to leave ahead of the storm if they can regardless of their evacuation zone.

She does not encourage over-evacuation, but doesn’t want people to make plans out of panic. If people have plans ahead of time, they can make decisions to leave far in advance of the storm to minimize evacuation congestion. 

“We think we are so good with our modern technology and know what’s going to happen. I think we are really arrogant … to think we understand Mother Nature,” Bishop said. “So when we start talking about cutting evacuation orders with a scalpel, and you are talking about peoples’ lives, know that you need an axe.”

Palm Beach County Emergency Manager Bill Johnson disagrees.

“I think it’s fair to suggest that people stay put if they can because they are taking gas and hotel rooms from people who are leaving to save their lives,” Johnson said.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered in Palm Beach County for about 153,000 people. Another 138,000 people live in areas that were under voluntary evacuation. About 17,000 people stayed in Palm Beach County shelters.

With the exception of mobile homes, evacuations in Florida are based on storm surge, not wind. That means people should evacuate tens of miles inland, not hundreds of miles north, Johnson said.

“We ask people to stay in the county,” he said. “We need to break down the myths that you need to evacuate to Arkansas to be safe.”

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