On Wednesday morning, Hurricane Michael barreled through the Florida panhandle. The most powerful storm to hit the region since record-keeping began in the mid-19th century ran roughshod over the stateâ€™s northwest coasts, damaging two local hospitals enough that they have started evacuating their patients from the areaâ€”even after the storm has left. At least seven people are dead, 900,000 homes and businesses have lost power, and an estimated 325,000 people who fled the storm have to find their way back home.
And in a terrible twist, researchers have found that Hurricane Michael hit some of the stateâ€™s least prepared counties.
Those researchersâ€”John Renne, a professor of urban and regional planning and the director of Florida Atlantic Universityâ€™s Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions, and doctoral student Andrea Ramosâ€”reviewed six sorts of emergency plans for all 67 of Floridaâ€™s counties. (In Floridaâ€”as in most places in the USâ€”emergency preparations happen on the local level.)
Renne and Ramos’s work found the counties in Florida with the least comprehensive hurricane evacuation plans were mostly in the state’s panhandleâ€”in the area hit by Hurricane Michael.
Center for Urban & Environmental Solutions
Each plan that the academics evaluated deals with different sorts of incidents or populations: Special Needs Registries and Specialized Transportation Plans should give authorities information on where and how residents with special needs should travel during an emergency. Pick-up location plans are for those without access to their own vehicles or who canâ€™t drive. Pet evacuation plans are for residents with pets (and those unwilling to evacuate without them). Multihazard plans are for events that include both hurricanes and other issues like flooding or environmental contamination risk. Evacuation maps are publicly available, easily accessible plans for evacuation routes.
Renne and Ramos graded the effectiveness of each of plan on a 0 to 2 point scale, for a possible 12 points in total. A well-developed scheme scored a two. Non-existent plans got a zero. In the end, ten counties, all in northern Florida or the stateâ€™s panhandle, got â€œweakâ€� scoresâ€”fewer than four points. Of those, at least one county, Gulf County, is under a mandatory evacuation order this week. Four other counties under mandatory evacuation ordersâ€”Bay, Dixie, Taylor, and Wakullaâ€”received â€œmoderateâ€� scores, meaning their plans earned between five and eight points. (The research has not yet been peer reviewed.)
On the face of it, these results arenâ€™t so surprising, says Renne. These are some of the least inhabited areas in Florida, accounting for just 1 percent of the stateâ€™s total permanent population. Plus, most counties receiving â€œweakâ€� or â€œmoderateâ€� scores arenâ€™t on the coast. â€œIf youâ€™re not a coastal county, it makes sense that you donâ€™t pay as much attention to evacuation plans,â€� Renne says. He also notes that the state of Florida on the whole is much better at disaster planning than other coastal states, many which are less frequently threatened by hurricanes.
But that relative distance from the coast will become less of a safeguard as climate change stirs up slower-moving, rain dense weather events. Storms like Michael and Florence are teaching planners to expect even inland coastal flooding. (During last monthâ€™s deluge in the Carolinas, inland areas saw more than 10 feet of flooding after swollen rivers pushed past their banks.) â€œPlaces are flooding now that may have never flooded before,â€� Renne says.
It will take months, maybe years, for authorities to fully understand what happened during this unusually catastrophic storm. Being underprepared is, of course, about risk. Just because a county didnâ€™t have complete contingencies for dealing with their most vulnerable populations doesnâ€™t mean more of them were affected during Michael. It may be that places with â€œweakâ€� plans got lucky this time.
But while rescue teams continue to rescue, and lineman work on getting communications up and running in northern Florida, Renne urges more localities to get serious about disaster planning. And for the state and federal authorities to get better about helping them to plan. â€œThereâ€™s no measuring stick for evacuation plans,â€� says Renne. Itâ€™s time to create oneâ€”and use it.
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