Tallahassee — Sizeable percentages of Floridians are at risk because they either do not receive or understand government hurricane evacuation warnings, according to studies done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Moreover, the key recommendations from Corps assessments of recent big hurricanes are not being implemented, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), leaving more people in the path of future storm surges.
The Corps’ “2004 Hurricane Season Post Storm Assessment” contains several disturbing findings, including:
- Public Ignorance of Storm Surge Dangers. “Storm surge has the highest potential to cause fatalities for people along the coast. According to the behavioral analyses findings, a majority of citizens in coastal states have never experienced a significant storm surge event and are not aware of their vulnerability.”
- Evacuation Order Confusion. “Some Counties are not issuing evacuation orders that match the evacuation zones… nearly half of the respondents cannot define what NOAA Hurricane Watches and Warnings mean.”
- False Sense of Security. “The most striking conclusions from the behavioral surveys are: too few people realize that they are being told to evacuate; too many people believe they are safer than they actually are; and too many people place undue confidence in the forecast track of the storm… Evacuation participation rates were low for Charley, Frances, and Jeanne. Based on behavioral studies the evacuation participation rates in surge vulnerable areas in some regions was very low.”
Despite the growing frequency and intensity of hurricanes, the federal government is reducing funding for analyses of public safety responses to these extreme weather events. The Corps Assessment notes:
“FEMA & Corps do not get sufficient funds to maintain and update Hurricane Evacuation Studies in 22 coastal states and island territories. Nor does the program have adequate funds to develop post storm recommendations after significant hurricane events.”
“Our method of hurricane preparation is like the ostrich burying its head in the sand,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips. “If we do not get our act together and make public safety planning and implementation a genuine priority, we are going to be tragically sorry one day very soon.”
In addition to ineffectiveness of evacuation warnings, there is a tremendous lack of places to which people can safely evacuate. As the Assessment finds, “Nearly all of the jurisdictions interviewed stated that they were experiencing shelter deficits. Several communities also warned that there were not adequate amounts of trained management staff to properly run the current shelters.” Moreover, many of the current shelters are located in high potential storm surge zones.
“Of all the places on the planet, Florida can least afford to continue its business as usual approach to hurricane preparedness,” Phillips concluded.