Irma, a year later: We cannot be too prepared for a hurricane

Men put window shutters in place as a storm bears down.
Men put window shutters in place as a storm bears down. Getty Images

Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida on the morning of Sept. 10, 2017 bringing sustained winds of 130 miles per hour and widespread destruction not seen since the 2005 record-breaking “triple-punch” of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

On this, the one-year anniversary of Irma, we should reflect on how Floridians responded, and what we have learned about hurricane preparedness. To that end, we surveyed a representative sample of 2,085 Floridians between Aug. 8-21, 2018. We asked how prepared residents were for the storm, and whether and how they heeded the advice of government officials. Our efforts are part of an initiative by the University of Miami’s College of Arts & Sciences to better understand the impact of hurricanes on South Florida.

How prepared were residents of Florida for Hurricane Irma? More than 80 percent of respondents to our survey reported that they felt “very” or “somewhat” prepared, while only 3 percent replied that they were “not at all” prepared for the storm. More than 90 percent of the Floridians we surveyed already had, or were able to obtain, essentials such as nonperishable food, bottled water, flashlights and batteries.

While these results are reassuring, Irma was a slow-moving storm and, therefore, was forecast long in advance. These results could be different with a faster moving or more unpredictable storm that allows shorter preparation time. The state should therefore continue to encourage Floridians to prepare not just in advance of specific storms, but in advance of hurricane season.

Residents were less prepared in terms of hurricane proof windows. Around 40 percent of our respondents reported that they did not have, or felt that they did not need, hurricane shutters or impact glass windows. Broken windows can cause not only injury, but lead to greater property damage. State and local agencies should therefore make greater efforts at encouraging homeowners to upgrade.

While those who sheltered in place were largely prepared for Irma, close to 30 percent of Floridians evacuated from their homes during the storm. Most drove and then remained somewhere else in Florida. A small minority of our survey respondents (3 percent) evacuated to a public shelter.

What should Floridians do differently moving forward? When we asked about general views toward evacuating, our data show that 73 percent of respondents prefer to remain at home during major storms. Given this, the state needs to develop ways to best communicate to citizens about the severity of the storm and the need for evacuation when necessary.

Because evacuation orders tend to affect those living in flood zones, we asked respondents if they resided within one and found that a majority (58 percent) do not. However, a high number of Florida residents (13 percent) did not know whether they live in a flood zone. When asked if they carry flood insurance, 67 percent of Floridians said “No” or “I don’t know.” Given that home insurance plans typically do not cover flooding, even if the home is not located in a flood zone, our data suggest that government agencies need to be more proactive in educating the public about the need for flood insurance.

While most Floridians did not evacuate to a public shelter during Irma, they are an essential public service for many people in our state, including the disabled, the homeless and the poor, among others. Three quarters of our respondents who evacuated to a shelter were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with their experience. That said, more than 26 percent had a neutral or negative feeling about their time at the shelter. Those who had a negative experience at a shelter pointed to overcrowding, lack of security and understaffed facilities. When we asked what would increase the likelihood of a respondent evacuating to a shelter during a hurricane, staffing the shelter with local police was the most popular response.

We also asked our respondents how quickly local government responded to their needs during the storm. More than 45 percent said that response was “very” or “somewhat” slow and about half of our respondents stated that the assistance offered by local government was “somewhat” or “very” helpful. No doubt local municipalities were taxed by requests for assistance before, during, and after the storm. This said, our data suggest that more needs be done at the local level to better prepare to meet residents’ needs.

The response to Hurricane Irma showed that Floridians are resilient, resourceful and largely prepared, but more work by all of us is needed to protect life and property in the future.

Casey Klofstad, Joseph Uscinski, and Jennifer Connolly are faculty in the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami.