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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Evacuation and the Danger of Mindless Obedience

Imagine if everyone ordered to evacuate had cooperated and a dangerous hurricane hit one of those highways.

I relocated to Tampa, FL in 2004 for a job opportunity. I moved into my apartment on Saturday, July 31 and started work the following Monday. One week later, the local news was dominated by Hurricane Charley, which was predicted to be the first hurricane to directly hit Tampa since 1921. Sound familiar?

I was told I was in a mandatory evacuation area, meaning 911 calls might not be answered for anyone who refused to leave. Nevertheless, most of my new, local friends told me to ignore the order. “They always say that,” I was told. “It always ends up being a lot of rain, nothing more.”

My well-meaning local government sent me directly into the path of the storm.

Something inside told me they were right. Still, I was new and although I never really feared for my life, I had recurring visions of local first responders pulling me out of the rubble as the media ridiculed the “Yankee who couldn’t follow simple instructions.” So, I played it safe and booked a hotel in Orlando.

On August 13, the hurricane turned right and made landfall in Port Charlotte, about 100 miles south of Tampa. It was a Category 4 when it hit, meaning winds of over 150 mph. It then made a beeline for – you guessed it – Orlando.

It hit the hotel I was staying in that evening as a Category 2, with winds about 106 mph. I watched out my window as the palm trees first bent all the way over in one direction, then straightened up for a while, then bent all the way over in the other direction as the southern end of the storm passed through.

Yes, my well-meaning local government sent me directly into the path of the storm. It was very impressive to watch, but, needless to say, I never evacuated again. After 2005, we had relatively mild hurricane seasons until I moved back to Western New York in 2014.

If You Stay, We Won’t Help You

It was from this perspective that I watched with genuine concern as the government edict to evacuate was delivered much more forcefully last week, as Irma approached. Even international media disseminated the message from “first responders” that they wouldn’t respond at all after the hurricane started. And they weren’t just talking about pulling recalcitrant non-evacuators from the rubble.

“If you have a heart attack, if you have a stroke, if you have some type of medical emergency, we will not come and help you,” said a Pasco County official.

Now, common sense should tell most people they can’t expect an ambulance to show up in 150 mph winds under any circumstances, but common sense seemed to be in short supply as this storm approached. The state and local governments ordered 6.5 million people to evacuate their homes and, on September 8, a Washington Post journalist in Gainesville reported what anyone who has ever lived in Florida (including this writer) knew would happen:

But Florida has only two main roads: interstates 95 and 75. They are parking lots, and have been for days. People are sitting in their vehicles, completely stopped on four-lane highways, running out of gas. There are no exits on these roads for scores of miles at a time. Once you get on a Florida highway, you are not getting off.”

Imagine if everyone ordered to evacuate had cooperated and a dangerous hurricane hit one of those highways. The death toll could have been an order of magnitude larger than it was. We know this from experience. Just twelve years ago, 2.5 million people attempted to evacuate Houston before Hurricane Rita made landfall. 

In total, some 130 people died in that evacuation, more than have ever perished in a hurricane in the state’s history, with the exception of the 1900 Galveston storm. Of those deaths, about half occurred before the storm hit Texas.

Who Should Make Decisions About Your Safety?

What actually happened over the weekend in Florida felt like déjà vu: the hurricane was originally predicted to hit Miami and travel up the Atlantic coast, but the storm shifted westward and headed directly for Tampa, where many people had evacuated to. I know just how the evacuees felt.

None of this is to say it is never wise to evacuate before a hurricane or other anticipated disaster. But the record is pretty clear on one thing. Whenever the government has hundreds of thousands or millions of people mobilized and traveling down the same road, it’s always best to be somewhere else. True, it’s worse when said people are armed and dressed in identical clothing, but even well-intentioned government edicts rarely turn out well.

Deciding how to prepare for a major storm, including whether or not to evacuate, is best left to the individual.

One also has to wonder how different things might be if emergency services were provided by the private market, instead of by government monopoly. Would all competing emergency service firms make the same recommendations? Would they not stop to consider the liability implications of sending millions of customers onto unprotected highways, under the threat of nonservice if they didn’t comply?

In the end, deciding how to prepare for a major storm, including whether to evacuate or not, is best left to the individual. Most people, based on their own experience and instincts, will make the best decision for themselves, whether that is to evacuate or stay where they are. Some will make the wrong choice and some will be unlucky either way. But nothing is ever more dangerous than a central planner trying to make decisions for millions of people, whether those decisions are economic or personal safety.