Florence lesson: Don’t ignore evacuation orders

September 19, 2018

Residents of southeastern Connecticut should be learning some lessons from the videos that continue to flow from North Carolina and adjacent states hit by former Hurricane Florence and its resulting inundation. Depicted in these scenes are rescue workers — Coast Guard, National Guard and local first responders — rescuing people and often their animals from flooded homes.

Many of these folks had ample warning that they needed to leave. Evacuation orders were issued not only for coastal communities hit by the storm surge generated by Florence’s arrival, but also for inland neighborhoods in the days that followed as the storm stalled and dumped rain measured by feet.

The lesson is to take storm preparation seriously and follow evacuation orders. The alternative is to risk dying and placing others in danger trying to rescue you.

As of Wednesday, authorities had attributed 37 deaths to Florence, 27 of them in hardest-hit North Carolina. There was no breakdown as to how failures or delays in evacuating contributed to that total.

About three feet of rain fell during the days-long storm in Elizabethtown, N.C. Rainfall totals around 30 inches were common over a large area.

Our region is not immune from such disasters, of course. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which struck 80 years ago Friday, is considered the greatest natural disaster in recorded New England history. Death tolls were estimated at between 600 to 700 people. The hurricane devastated the coastline, destroying entire beach communities, and contributed to massive inland flooding.

But there was a big difference. Long Island and Southern New England residents had no warning of the hurricane’s approach, no chance to evacuate and no context for what was befalling them.

Thanks to modern forecast technology, with satellite monitoring, hurricane hunter aircraft, and complex computers that can crunch incredible amounts of atmospheric and oceanographic data — the potential threat from a hurricane is often known a week or more in advance. Hurricane landfalls with accompanying warnings are forecast days ahead, providing time to evacuate even heavily populated communities.

Yet too many stay.

A guest commentary that appeared in our Sept. 16 Perspective section delved into the psychology of why people do not heed evacuation orders. The author of the article, Robert J. Meyer, co-director of the Wharton Center for Risk Management and Decision Processing at the University of Pennsylvania, released it for publication as Florence approached, but predicted many people would not evacuate and deaths would result. Unfortunately, he was correct.

Meyer offered several explanations for the mentality that leads to people disregarding warnings and failing to properly prepare. People have difficulty believing the storm will be as bad as forecast, most having no reference for such an event. If others in the neighborhood seem to be doing little, a herd mentality sets in and compounds the problem.

Even with modern forecasting, it is hard for forecasters to pin down exact landfall locations. Folks may be reluctant to put much effort into preparation — arranging for lodging, securing water supplies, filling cars with gas — or to disrupt their lives by leaving when they face an abstract threat that may not materialize. Past experiences with near misses can exacerbate this tendency.

Then there are those who face genuine challenges, such as advanced age, disability, or a lack of transportation. In these cases it is critically important for individuals, or their families and neighbors, to make plans in advance, often with advice from emergency preparedness officials.

Pets present another problem. According to ASPCA, about 44 percent of U.S. households have at least one dog, 35 percent at least one cat. For public health reasons, many emergency shelters do not accept pets.

The Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Public Protection urges pet owners to have a plan. Know which hotels are pet friendly or make plans with friends or relatives to take in you and your pets in an emergency. If these solutions don’t fit your situation, call your local animal shelter or animal control officer to get advice and information.

Property losses from these mega-storms are unavoidable, but lives can be saved if people listen.



Update hourly