Evacuating for a big hurricane - just do it

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Residents evacuate from coastal areas near Wallace, N. C., as Hurricane Florence approaches.
Residents evacuate from coastal areas near Wallace, N. C., as Hurricane Florence approaches. AP

As Hurricane Florence approached, the ever-present survival question remained for residents in her path: Evacuate, or not?

In Miami-Dade, some may be forgetting that sometimes it’s best to flee from a storm. Maybe the horrific tale of the impact of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew should be part of the yearly lesson plan in every Florida school, with a condensed version printed on wallet-sized cards and distributed to new arrivals with cups of fresh orange juice at interstate welcome centers.

Too much? Current education efforts certainly aren’t working, judging from a recent poll that found one in five Floridians wouldn’t evacuate their homes if a Category 3 or 4 storm were barreling at them.

That, of course, is exactly the scenario that has more than a million people in the Carolinas fleeing — or staying in place — this week as Hurricane Florence roars toward the Mid-Atlantic coast.

The poll, conducted by the National Hurricane Survival Initiative, is a reminder that far too many people in our state grow complacent about — or fail to fully comprehend — just how vulnerable Florida is to Mother Nature.

“You would think after Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria last year more people would understand what’s at stake,” Craig Fugate, a former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Florida’s emergency management division, said.

The poll showed other worrisome gaps in knowledge. Close to one-third of respondents didn’t realize they can kill themselves if they try running a generator indoors, and others demonstrated a lack of basic understanding about their hurricane and flood insurance coverage — a knowledge gap that’s costly or impossible to recover from after a major hit.

But it’s the blasé response to a major hurricane that is the most disturbing, especially considering ongoing efforts by Miami-Dade and others to address shortcomings in hurricane preparedness from a government and individual perspective.

Another recent survey, by the University of Miami’s College of Arts & Sciences, indicated more than 80 percent of Floridians felt “very” or “somewhat” prepared. That’s encouraging, but work obviously remains to be done. Hurricanes will only grow larger and cause more damage as sea levels rise in a warming world.

Perhaps residents need to hear more personal accounts from people like Rose Healy, one of many survivors whose stories can be found in the Miami Herald’s archives. Ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Irma last year, she told the Herald about her harrowing experience 25 years earlier as Andrew pummeled her home.

… She climbed to the second floor of her Killian house only to see a whirlwind of debris flying through the sky. Her roof was gone. She ran back downstairs, where all the windows were exploding, and was lifted a foot off the floor by a gust as the front door flung open. She and her sister closed it and held it closed until they thought their hands would break off.

Healy huddled with her mother and her sister in their garage until the storm finally passed. “Afterward, outside, everyone was walking around like zombies,” Healy said. “Our neighborhood was reduced to a pile of timber.”

That timber pile isn’t exactly ancient history. Nor are other destructive, life-changing and life-ending storms,that hammered Florida. They’re fresh memories for survivors. And their stories could have tragic sequels in this hurricane season and in many after it if one in five Floridians really think they’re tougher than a major hurricane.