Should I stay, or Should I Go … When Facing a Hurricane?
By Kelly Dean
Editor’s note: This is part 1 of 2. You can find part 2, about what it’s like to go through a hurricane here.
Reflecting on lessons learned from Hurricane Irma, I’m reminded that folks often make decisions when the circumstances are one way, then regret them after those circumstances change. Life is not entirely predictable. But it’s harder when those decisions might impact your safety.
The bad and the worse
The hardest thing about an approaching hurricane is the uncertainty. Second-guessing yourself goes on for days, right up to the time the storm’s eye-wall is right over you. Although you may have prepared well, gotten the “Big 4” together — water, food, gas and ice — then boarded up your windows, it’s still the science, or lack thereof, that makes waiting for it to arrive unnerving.
Hurricanes dance around like the devil at a rich man’s wake. And the more it drinks, the crazier the dance.
Local meteorologists are torn between informing the public, being scientists and making sure this year’s hurricane sponsor is happy with the coverage (local stations have hurricane sponsors – yeah, really). Some stations have local Doppler radar, some have great graphics, while some evidently have Ouija boards or Magic 8-balls that you shake and read: “It is decidedly so.” They call this the wire services.
Too often viewer-targeted glitz and fear mongering taint weather coverage, leaving the audience scared but no better informed.
Some local stations use National Weather Service radar located in Tampa, Melbourne or Miami, which are often hundreds of miles away from the actual storm.
Hurricanes vacillate back and forth between level 2 and 3 and 4 and even 5 in severity. There comes a time, however, when the difference between 110 mph wind (level 2) and 160 mph wind (level 5) starts to feel a lot like the difference between being shot and being stabbed. A short pass over warm sea water is enough to feed it and give it the scary prestige it craves: earning a ridiculously benign unicorn name like Bobby or Buffy.
Hurricanes can also serpentine anywhere inside that “cone of uncertainty,” which weathermen like to show us on television. Hurricanes choose when to make their major directional “turns” which are somewhat unpredictable until they happen, yet those turns make the difference between pure hell and somewhat less pure hell. I’ve had to do a lot of cone-watching.
So this is why the devil dances: An intelligent being, knowing a hurricane is approaching, should have plenty of rational reasons to leave. So what makes one stay?
Florida is a peninsula with water on three sides. The hurricane is coming from one of these three sides. Most of Florida is only about 120-140 miles wide. Storms are often 300+ miles wide and they dance the Lambada like that aforementioned drunken devil. Since the meteorologist’s cones can be 100 miles off, one way or the other, that means the hurricane can come from about anywhere on the peninsula, or worse, off the water and back.
The geographic and economic bottlenecks
If jumping on the “let’s get out of here” bandwagon creates more actual threats to your perceived wellbeing as, say, staying where the hell you are, that can make you stay where the hell you are.
How do you really evacuate over 20 million people when most or all are threatened at the very time the evacuation is issued, generally when the whole state is in the cone? Yet by the time there’s more certainty, there’s far less opportunity.
There are only two main north-south interstates out of south Florida, one on the west coast and one on east coast: I-75 and I-95, respectively. If you see the long lines on the interstates on TV, that can make you stay where the hell you are. If the prospect of getting on the road during statewide gas and hotel room shortages could leave you stranded, out of gas, with a hurricane on your backside, that can make you stay where the hell you are.
Again, there is no gas. It doesn’t matter if Gas Buddy tells you there’s no gas, there’s still no gas.
If all the flights out of the state have been taken — by folks who may or may not be threatened — or even know for sure whether they are threatened — but they can afford to just fly away based upon the mere speculation they could be threatened, that makes you stay where the hell you are. Again, there are no flights.
And then the airports just close all together. This is almost two full days before the real storm hits.
Shelters fill up quickly and close their doors too. Often, these folks are in bigger danger than you are. Coastal communities are often under mandatory evacuation first thing and under a large threat due to storm surge. Of course, folks in the direct path of the eye-wall are suffering their own huge treat due to the wind, immense rain and potential flooding. The poor, sick, elderly, and those with small kids are under threat simply due to their situations. Leaving is a financial endeavor too. These are the people who should, and generally do, fill shelters first.
But then there are people who bought million dollar coastal properties knowing full well they have Mother Nature’s bull’s-eye on their house during a hurricane – but they buy them anyway. Do they get to fill up shelters too? Of course they do. Hopefully, they have the resources to evacuate away from the local shelters.
Upon waking on the morning of the storm, when my on-shore “zone” fell under “mandatory evacuation” overnight, I faced the reality that I could not make it to the nearest available shelter – 43 minutes away, in a blinding storm, even if I wanted to. Why would I risk the long drive there if their doors were likely to close during the drive, and then risk another long trip back? The closest shelters had already filled.
Searching for plywood and gas teaches you this: beware of sudden availability; it will be gone once you get there. And you’ll never get that preparation time back.
Nearly all shelters and hotels do not take pets. Among my neighbors, this is the No. 1 reason I heard for people staying in their own homes. Would you leave your pets behind to face a hurricane without you?
And all this is happening while the hurricane is still out to sea and has not even made continental landfall. Yet, relatives and friends are slamming you with texts and social media asking, “Why don’t you leave?”
As my Caribbean brothers would tell you, it isn’t easy getting transportation off an island in the middle of the sea as a storm approaches. Have you ever heard of Gilligan?
So next time you find yourself thinking, why don’t they just evacuate? Look at a map of Florida, look at the storm track, look up Florida’s population, check the news about gas availability, see if you can find the IQs of the mayors and governors coordinating things, and then judge the residents. Remember, we’re semi-professionals at this, but it’s solely by default, certainly not by choice.
If you’re coastal or live on a barrier island, you likely have money and insurance so just evacuate once you find gas or a flight.
If you’re poor, sick, elderly or a single parent with small kids, consider seeking a local shelter early on, if you don’t have a full tank of gas and a cousin living in Georgia.
If you’re deeply on-shore, decide whether to hunker down with two week’s worth of food and water until that newly anointed “linemen” finally get around to you.
Or as the governor says, “Let them eat … evacuation!” He really didn’t say that; it just seems like he did.
Does one feel guilty for evacuating? I don’t know. I’ll tell you after I get to do it.
Editor’s note: Hurricane survival tips can be found here if you choose not to evacuate at storm.