Opinion: How to make people safer during the next deadly hurricane

Editor’s note: Cara Cuite is a health psychologist and outreach specialist in the human ecology department at Rutgers University. Rebecca Morss is a senior scientist and deputy director of the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more reviews on CNN.


More than 100 people died when Hurricane Ian hit Florida. Why was this storm so deadly? As researchers who study how people make evacuation decisions before coastal storms, we believe it is critical to understand the characteristics of this storm – and communication about it – that contributed to its lethality.

Rebecca Morss

Meteorologists’ predictions of Ian’s likely track changed as the storm approached landfall, as forecasts typically do. In this case, the storm moved south, and areas like Lee County, which 72 hours earlier were thought to have a lower chance of direct impact, ended up directly in Ian’s path.

Ian also experienced rapid intensification, possibly due to climate change, which meant that its wind speeds increased dramatically before making landfall over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Emergency managers need at least 48 hours to successfully evacuate areas of southwest Florida. However, voluntary evacuation orders for Lee County were issued less than 48 hours before landfall, and mandatory for some areas 24 hours before the storm made landfall. This was less than the time specified in Lee County’s emergency management plan.

While some cited insufficient time to evacuate as a reason they were left behind, there are other factors that could stifle evacuations in some of the hardest-hit areas.

To properly comply with evacuation orders, people must first know their evacuation zone. Research from other areas of the country indicates that many people do not. That’s why locator websites for evacuation zones in affected regions were crucial. However, so many people were checking their fields some of these websites failed in the days before the storm.

Our research (and that of others) indicates that mandatory evacuation orders can lead to higher evacuation rates than voluntary ones. Hearing first that their area was under a voluntary evacuation order may have made some residents less concerned and less likely to take action when an evacuation became mandatory. It may also have caused confusion about what people should do in the crucial days and hours before the storm’s landfall.

In areas where evacuation orders were later issued, people not expecting evacuation needed to quickly find and understand evacuation zone information. In addition, it takes time to communicate evacuation orders throughout the community, and for people to decide what to do, pack, find a place to go, and plan how to get there, often amid heavy traffic and other complications and obstacles. .

What was important to Ian was how personal experiences before hurricanes influence people’s decisions. Some of the areas devastated by Ian have had several close calls with hurricanes recently, including Hurricanes Charley and Irma. While these storms affected many in the same community, they did not have the same effects as Ian, which may have created a false sense of security among some residents.

Fort Myers City Councilman Liston Bochette III said, “Obviously, it happens when you’re warned about once in ten. Well, this is a time. And people didn’t evacuate properly. And I think we’re flourishing…this little corner of paradise in the world.” it is one and we were bound in a passive way of thinking that it will not catch us”.

In addition to some residents’ false sense of security from prior crashes, others in areas of Florida hit hard by Hurricane Ian may have had no personal experience with such powerful storms. That’s likely the case for the millions of people who have moved to Florida in recent decades, especially those who have moved from areas where hurricanes are rare or don’t occur. Ian, as with some past storms, some people recognized the danger too late.

It is still too early to draw conclusions about what lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of communication in the run-up to Hurricane Ian, but some things are clear. People need to know that they are in an area that is being asked to evacuate, and waiting until the storm is on its way to know their area may be too late. Emergency managers need to educate people ahead of the storm, and develop more robust websites to handle inquiries in the days leading up to the storm.

Public officials and the media should continue to provide detailed information on where, how and why to evacuate, which can be critical factors in people’s decisions to leave.

Many listings of available shelters included clear indications that pets were allowed or that people with special needs could be accommodated, which was likely helpful to the more than 33,000 people who used the public shelter system. However, among those who did not evacuate, pets and disabilities continue to be cited as reasons, indicating a need for more outreach and evacuation support specifically in these areas.

Hurricane Ian focused residents’ attention on important elements of storm preparedness, such as their evacuation zones. For future storms, it will be important for people, especially the most vulnerable, to continue to understand how and why to evacuate, given the often rapidly changing forecasts. Hurricane Ian proved that sometimes the worst really happens.