Editor’s Note: Cara Cuite is a health psychologist and assistant extension specialist in the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University. Rebecca Morss is a senior scientist and associate director of the Mesoscale and Microscale Weather Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The views expressed here are their own. Read more about CNN’s opinion.
Hurricane Ian kills more than 100 people in Florida. Why is this storm so deadly? As researchers who study how people make evacuation decisions prior to coastal storms, we believe it is critical to understand the characteristics of this storm and the communications associated with it, as this contributes to its lethality.
As the storm neared landfall, meteorologists’ forecasts of Ian’s likely trajectory changed, as forecasts usually do. In this case, the storm turned south, and areas such as Lee County, which were considered less likely to be directly impacted 72 hours earlier, ended up directly in Ian’s path.
Ian also experienced rapid intensification, likely affected by climate change, which means winds increase sharply as it passes through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall.
Emergency managers typically require at least 48 hours to successfully evacuate the Southwest Florida area. However, Lee County’s voluntary evacuation orders were issued less than 48 hours before landfall, and for some areas, evacuation orders were enforced 24 hours before the storm made landfall. That’s less than the time specified in Lee County’s own emergency management plan.
While some cited the lack of time to evacuate as the reason they stayed, there were other factors that may have inhibited evacuations in some of the hardest-hit areas.
In order to properly execute an evacuation order, people first need to know their evacuation area. Research in other parts of the country shows that many don’t. That’s why evacuation zone locator sites for affected counties are critical.However, there are so many people checking their area Some of these sites crashed in the days before the storm.
Our own research (and that of others) suggests that mandatory evacuation orders may result in higher evacuation rates than voluntary evacuations. Hearing for the first time that their area is under a voluntary evacuation order may tempt some residents to be less concerned and less likely to act once a mandatory evacuation occurs. It could also lead to confusion about what to do in the critical days and hours before the storm makes landfall.
In areas where evacuation orders are issued later, people who do not expect to evacuate need to quickly find and understand this evacuation zone. Additionally, it takes time to communicate evacuation orders throughout the community and what people decide to do, pack, find a place to go and arrange how to get there, often with heavy traffic and other complications and obstacles.
Equally important to Ian is how previous personal hurricane experiences have influenced people’s decisions. More recently, some of the areas Ian devastated have been hit by multiple hurricanes, including Hurricanes Charlie and Irma. While these storms affected many of the same communities, they did not have the same impact as Ian, which may have created a false sense of security among some residents.
As Fort Myers City Council member Liston Bochette III put it: “Obviously, when they warn you, that happens about 1 in 10. Well, it was one time. People didn’t evacuate the way they should And I think we’re stuck in … this is a little corner of paradise in the world, and we’re stuck in a passive mindset that it’s not going to hit us.”
Aside from some residents who had a false sense of security due to previous near misses, others in the hard-hit area of Hurricane Ian in Florida may not have experienced such a powerful storm firsthand. This may be true for the millions of people who have moved to Florida over the past few decades, especially those who have moved from areas where hurricanes are rare or not. In Ian, like some past storms, some people realized the danger was too late.
It’s too early to draw conclusions about what lessons have been learned from communication successes and failures before Hurricane Ian, but some things are clear. People need to know they’re in an area they’ve been asked to evacuate — it may be too late to know where they are by the time the storm hits. Emergency managers need to educate people before the storm is approaching, while also developing a more robust website to handle inquiries in the days leading up to the storm.
Public officials and the media should continue to provide specific information about where, how and why evacuations can be key factors in people’s decisions to evacuate.
The listings of many of the available shelters clearly indicate whether they are pet-friendly or can accommodate individuals with special needs, which may be helpful to the more than 33,000 people who use the public shelter system. However, among those who did not evacuate, pets and disability continued to be listed as causes, suggesting that more outreach and evacuation support is particularly needed in these areas.
Hurricane Ian focused residents’ attention on important aspects of storm preparation, such as their evacuation zones. For future storms, it is important to continue to help people, especially the most vulnerable, understand how and why to evacuate, often under rapidly changing forecasts. Hurricane Ian proved that sometimes the worst does happen.