As I write this powerful Hurricane Irma is churning though the Caribbean headed for the Florida where it is expected to hit the Florida Keys with Category 5 sustained winds of at least 157 MPH. When it comes on shore a few hours later its winds will be still roughly equivalent to a Category 3 tornado, and we know the damage those storms can inflict. The State of Florida has issued mandatory evacuation orders for many areas of Florida’s four southern most counties in the direct path of the storm, especially areas where flooding is expected due to storm surges.
For the last several days Florida Governor Rick Scott has been pleading with those most threaten by the storm to evacuate. He warned, “Do not sit and wait for Hurricane Irma to come. It is EXTREMELY dangerous & deadly – it will cause devastation.” Today he said, “This can kill you; if you have received mandatory evacuation orders, get out now while you still can!” About 5.6 million people in Florida were told to evacuate and head north.
Similar warnings have been repeated time and time again by city and county officials and emergency managers in Southern Florida. In some areas residents have been told that if they stay not to call 911 because there will be no to answer the emergency service number. For those not able to evacuate on their own, the state and county governments are providing free evacuation services. Yet, as always in such situations, some people in mandatory evaluation zones are refusing to leave. What are these people thinking? Do they not understand the devastation a hurricane like Irma can inflict?
Yesterday I watched while a CNN reporter interviewed a young mother who planned on hunkering down in her home in a mandatory evacuation area with her four month old and fourteen month old babies. When asked why, the woman said that while she had not been born yet, her family successfully rode out 1992 Hurricane Andrew in her home. She said she had plenty of food and formula for her children so they should be fine. I hope she changed her mind and bundled up those two kids and headed north because there are several serious problems in her thinking, problems which could get her entire family killed.
First, since she wasn’t there, she has no idea what her family went though after the rode out Hurricane Andrew. Even if her home remains untouched, power outages are a certainty and electricity may not be restored for weeks. If her babies need medical care, none will be available. Flood waters and/or downed power lines will make moving around very hazardous for both victims and rescuers after the storm.
Andrew, while it was a powerful Category 5 storm, took a totally different path when it crossed the tip of Florida east to west from the Atlantic into the Gulf of Mexico. The path projected for Irma is totally different. Andrew inflicted a lot of wind damage, but it caused very little flooding. Irma, on the other hand, is coming in straight from the south and storm surges are expected to cause anywhere from 5 to 14 feet of flooding in large areas near the coasts. Irma is also twice as wide as Andrew was and it is more powerful. Winds near the eye walls of the two storms might be similar, but Irma’s dangerous winds extend much further from its center. Consequently Irma’s winds and flooding will both be more deadly than Andrew.
But that young woman and her children won’t be the only one flirting with disaster if she stays put; she and her babies will probably have lots of company. One Florida official estimated that as many as 50,000 people may not obey mandatory evacuation orders. All I hope will be fine, but the odds are that some will no longer be alive Monday morning. Chances are that many others will need to be rescued after going though hell.
So why do they stay? The reasons are probably many and varied, but what could they possibly value more than their lives and the lives of their family members? Whatever their reasoning, we can be assured that large measures of stubbornness, ignorance and/or stupidity have factored into their decision making process.
The facts are clear. If everyone evacuated when mandatory or voluntarily evacuation orders are posted, everyone would be safe from the storm except for perhaps those few who might be involved in unusual accidents. Their homes and possessions may be destroyed or devastated, but they would all still be alive. When large numbers of people ignore evacuation orders, our experience with past hurricanes tells us that some will die and many others will require rescue from flooded and/or wind damaged homes. And to perform those rescues first responders will in too many cases also have to put their own lives at risk.
One would think that people would learn, but we see it every time a major storm approaches. And I’m sick of it.
I grew up 35 miles from the Gulf of Mexico in Southwest Louisiana, close enough to the coast to understand the fury and destruction of hurricanes. Once helping out at Red Cross shelter in Lafayette I had to run supplies between buildings during a storm. You gain a lot respect for those monstrosities when you experience those winds and you see debris flying through the air at speeds that could decapitate you. And we didn’t even have to deal with flooding that far inland. I have also been to the coast after hurricanes hit and saw 400 year old live oaks uprooted and houses floating down bayous.
I wish that I could somehow relay those experiences to the people making life and death decisions on whether or not to evacuate as Irma approaches. Perhaps those experiences could generate the respect for these storms necessary to overcome the large doses of stubbornness, ignorance and stupidity.