With hurricanes, wildfires, evacuation orders fall short
MIAMI (AP) — With Hurricane Michael strengthening as it took aim at Florida’s Panhandle, Mark Bowen and his employees watched the live footage through tears.
They weren’t looking at increasingly dire storm forecasts last October. They were watching cameras trained on rural Bay County’s three main evacuation routes leading away from sugar-white beaches.
Traffic was flowing smoothly when there should have been gridlock.
Bowen, the county’s emergency management chief, had ordered about 120,000 coastal residents to evacuate but only about 20,000 actually left, according to preliminary estimates by county engineers.
“There was this period where we were just beside ourselves,” Bowen said. “We couldn’t move our population to act.”
It’s a problem Florida officials face before every big storm, though they usually have far more time than their counterparts in California, who need to evacuate residents threatened by fast-moving wildfires.
Zachary Byrd said he got “not a word” to evacuate a wildfire closing in on the California town of Paradise.
He had signed up for every warning system and previously got evacuation orders on his cellphone. But on the morning of Nov. 8, it took screams from his girlfriend to wake him up to the smell of Paradise on fire. One look out the window and Byrd knew he and his girlfriend had to flee.
On the one main road out of town, gridlock was so bad people abandoned their vehicles and ran as flames crackled closer on both sides. It took Byrd almost three hours to get 15 miles (24 kilometers) to safety.
“There came a point where I thought I might die,” he said of the Camp Fire that would kill 85, many of them elderly people trapped in their homes. He says until recently, he had weekly nightmares of the traffic jam and the sound of exploding propane tanks.
“It sounded like we were getting bombed,” he said.
Warning Californians to flee wildfires has been left solely to local officials for decades, and the alerts often came too late and failed to reach a large number of residents.
The evacuation failures in Paradise and elsewhere have state authorities taking lessons from Florida and other states where hurricanes require a unified strategy to potentially get millions out of harm’s way.
The efforts still run up against an entrenched problem: Some people just won’t leave, no matter the number of the warnings or how dire they are.
California launched its first guidelines in March for local officials to follow during evacuations. The Florida Division of Emergency Management has used similar guidelines for years.
Florida stresses regional coordination and allowing time to evacuate large communities, with county governments deciding when to tell people to flee.
California’s new guidance urges communities to rely on a federal warning system, which ensures alerts reach the greatest number of people quickly, usually through cellphones.
One of the biggest lessons in the new California guidelines: “Incomplete or imperfect information is not a valid reason to delay or avoid issuing a warning. Time is of the essence.”
Researchers have found that only about half of people in mandatory evacuation zones leave before hurricanes. The percentage is higher for wildfires, but many still ignore the orders.
People stay because of health problems, the cost and skepticism of the danger, as well as pets and animals that can be hard to accommodate. That’s why Cathy Fallon, her husband and adult son decided to ride out California’s most destructive wildfire as it churned across their modest Paradise ranch.
“My horses,” Fallon said of her decision to stay even as the wildfire roared over a hillside.
It’s difficult to devise evacuation plans for wildfires because they offer so little warning and can quickly shift direction, said Ron Anderson of Florida Disaster Consulting, who helped coordinate evacuations for hurricanes and wildfires for nearly 30 years with Florida’s Department of Transportation.
“How are you going to evacuate for a wildfire when the wind could change and shut the road down with smoke?” he said. “With a hurricane, we know the road isn’t going to shut down for a few more days.”
The best way to save lives is to plan ahead, Anderson said, by educating homeowners to clear properties of vegetation and debris that can burn and giving them a destination to go in a disaster.
“Set up something in the community away from any wildfire or smoke damage that you could use as a shelter, so you’re not just telling people to leave and then leaving them to go their own direction,” Anderson said.
To speed up evacuations, Florida transportation officials in January 2018 advised opening emergency shoulders to highway traffic, adding more lanes and emergency roadside services to major evacuation routes, adjusting traffic signals, and adding more cameras and message signs to alert drivers to problems.
Many California communities have similar plans, but rural and remote towns with fewer resources and roads face special challenges. In Paradise, for instance, the main evacuation route was a narrow, two-lane road that couldn’t handle the sudden influx of traffic on Nov. 8 when 14,000 needed to flee at once.
Residents need one unambiguous message from local officials when disaster looms, said Marty Senterfitt, director of emergency management and fire deputy chief in the Florida Keys. Offering options can confuse people and lead them to pick the most appealing option, instead of the safest.
“Whatever your message is, you have to be definitive, and you have to be precise,” Senterfitt said. “You can’t in any way allow people’s minds to take the path of least resistance.”
Two months before the chaotic evacuation of Paradise, the California governor signed a bill introduced by state Sen. Mike Mcguire that led to the publication of the state’s unifying guidelines last month. McGuire, a Democrat, represents much of the state’s wine country hit hard by wildfire in 2017. Many residents complained they didn’t receive warnings.
“Bottom line, this legislation will save lives,” McGuire said. “The size and scope of wildland fires in California has grown exponentially over the past decade and a universal emergency alert system can’t come soon enough.”
Elias reported from San Francisco.