Florida has the most small cities with hurricane evacuation problems, analysis finds

When Hurricane Irma came roaring over the Atlantic toward Florida, on a predicted path that would reach from coast to coast, practically the entire state evacuated. It was chaos.

The state’s review of the mess found that Florida needed to expand use of shoulder lanes on major interstates and improve fuel service to critical gas stations. But a new analysis shows there’s something else the state might need to consider — small communities.

Research published Thursday by traffic analysis firm StreetLight Data shows that Florida tops the list of states with the most evacuation-challenged small cities. And that doesn’t just mean the islands with one road in and out, although Florida islands like Sanibel and North Bay Village were among the top 20 communities at risk.

For the Sunshine State, the analysis is a “big warning sign,” said Richard Florida, an urban planning researcher at Florida International University.

“It is really showing quite clearly that when it comes to just evacuating from natural disasters that small and medium-sized cities are really challenged,” he said. “Those are the folks who’ll take it on the chin.”

More people live in suburbs and beyond than in cities, Florida said, and the infrastructure often isn’t as well-developed as more urbanized areas. And as more new residents arrive every day, those suburban communities are sprawling even farther.

As climate change makes hurricanes stronger, he worries that the Sunshine State could be growing less prepared for the mass evacuations that may lie in its future.

“Florida has long been a development-oriented state,” he said. “We have to prepare for more people coming our way, not less.”

An interactive map the researchers built to show off the data reveals some inland communities — like Immokalee in Collier County and Watergate in Palm Beach County — are also evacuation challenged. Immokalee has just over 24,000 residents and only four main exits. During an evacuation, the main exit would get 58 percent of the traffic, the researcher found.

“In most big cities there’s a lot of ways to get in and out, but not in small towns,” said Laura Schewel, CEO of California-based StreetLight Data, the company that did the analysis. Her team used data from cell phone and internet-connected cars and trucks to analyze common traffic patterns in U.S. cities with populations under 40,000.

They found that across the country, smaller communities were at risk of evacuation problems, even though the conversation around evacuation from natural disasters is often centered around large cities.

“The data is meant to give, in an equal lens, a view of bottlenecking risk in terms of evacuation,” she said. “Most of us live in Northern California, where the biggest disasters have been in small cities.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.