Hurricane Irma and Why We May Not Evacuate

Hurricane Irma - Evacuation

Whenever a hurricane hits a populated center, like the city of Houston was hit by Hurricane Harvey, people will question what motivated residents to refuse to comply with the orders of evacuation.  Why, given so much prior warning, do people not just move out of harms way? Well, at the moment, Katy and I are camped out in Florida and find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to weigh for ourselves this same evacuation question with the looming threat of Hurricane Irma.

With its current status (at 5:30am Tuesday September 5) Hurricane Irma is a category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.   This means we can expect sustained winds of 130-155 mph if it remains at this current level.  The keyword in that last sentence is sustained, because wind gusts can easily bring the the wind force to 180+ mph.  Needless to say, Hurricane Irma has our attention.


Most likely arrival time in Florida of Hurricane Irma from National Hurricane Center

So, should we evacuate?

Landfall in Florida could happen as early as this coming weekend and the Governor of Florida has already declared a state of emergency.  We certainly should not wait until landfall to make the call.  Unfortunately, as is the nature of these things, nothing is certain and the variables for a storm of this size moving at its current speed of 14 mph, means that it could still very well miss the entire state of Florida.

When to leave is tricky.  Leaving too early, before we have a better idea of where the storm is headed, may lead us to position ourselves right under the storm.  But leaving too late may leave us stuck and exposed on the long stretches of highway along I-75, I-95, or I-10.    If we do not time it right, considering our slow rate of movement with a top speed of 58mph, we may find too much traffic or not enough fuel on the road to make it to safety.

At the time of writing this, the entire state of Florida is under threat and so is the stretch of coastline that extends north into the Carolinas and even west into the Gulf of Mexico.  That means that if we decided to leave right now our best bet would be to drive toward the West, Northwest of the State of Georgia and the Atlanta area.

Normally, I would have used this opportunity to boast about the mobility advantage of living in a tiny house on wheels that can take us away from trouble.  Reality is not so simple, however.  Although we could pack up and hit the road with no loss of personal property or harm to ourselves, we would also leave behind people we love.  Both of our mothers and other family live in the Central Florida Area, with my own brother living by the beach on the East Coast of Florida.  These are all people that through their own circumstance may have a difficult time evacuating and whom we would be obligated to aide to safety during and after the hurricane.

For us to make it to safety is tantamount to leaving them to fend for themselves since returning to the affected area after a hurricane has passed can be more difficult than leaving.  As many found out during Katrina and others are experiencing now with Harvey, the return trip to an area afflicted by the high winds and large amounts of rainfall that accompany hurricanes, can be littered with power outages that paralyze fuel pumps, flooding that is too high to pass through, and blown down power lines and trees which will make some roads impassable.

On top of all those considerations there’s the most important one for many, that they simply cannot afford the travel outside the danger area.   Getting away from a large hurricane means driving for 6 to 10 hours, and then waiting out the storm for a few days, or weeks, before making the return trip.  By past experience I can attest that any evacuation can cost as little as $1,000.00 or even up $3,000.00 (if hotel stays and food are included) depending on all the incidentals and the number of days that you are forced to stay away.

Nobody would argue that $3000.00 is not a good value to safeguard the lives of those you care for,  but for some of us, $3,000.00 is not a non-trivial amount of money, either.  Specially when that amount simply doesn’t exist within our bank accounts at any given time.  Evacuations are expensive, even for those of use who have the physical ability to move on a whim.

To add insult to injury, over a given hurricane season, there can be many calls to evacuate and many of those calls will end up being false alarms.  But even if they were all perfectly predicted and we knew with certainty that we would get hit by the full power of an Atlantic Cyclone, at best we would be unable to afford more than one evacuation.

2004 is a perfect example of this problem.  There where about a dozen named storms that seemed to threaten the Florida Peninsula at one point or another.  That season, the state was hit by four hurricanes including Ivan, Charlie, Jeanne, and Frances.  The last three of those swept across the state with each of their paths  crossing over Polk County in the southwestern edge of Central Florida.

2004 Hurricane season paths over Florida

Hurricanes Charlie, Frances, and Jeanne, impact Florida, from USGS

Ideally, we would have evacuated for each of those hurricanes, and had the presence of mind to not do so for any of the other 2004 named storms false alarms.  Though, in reality, when Hurricane Charlie hit in 2004, I was a adjunct instructor at the University of Central Florida. I could barely pay my rent that month and did not even have enough money to by extra food and water for the inevitable post-storm problems, much less afford an evacuation.  The thought of evacuating for each of the dozen other coming storms that season, would have cost somewhere in the vicinity of $10,000-$25,000, more than my yearly salary then.

My point is, not everyone can evacuate, and even those who can afford to evacuate cannot do so every time the call to evacuate is raised. More often whether or not one evacuates has less to do with willingness and more to do with the lack of ability to do so.  As we watch Irma come close, all of this will come into closer consideration.

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