Editor’s note: Cara Cuite is a health psychologist and assistant extension specialist in the department of human ecology at Rutgers University. Rebecca Morss is a senior scientist and deputy director of the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The opinions expressed here are my own. Read more opinion on CNN.
More than 100 people died when Hurricane Ian hit Florida. Why was this storm so deadly? As researchers who study how people make evacuation decisions before coastal storms, we believe it is critical to understand the characteristics of this storm—and the communication about it—that contributed to its mortality.
Forecasters’ predictions of Ian’s likely path changed as the storm approached land, as forecasts tend to do. In this case, the storm veered south and areas like Lee County, which 72 hours in advance were thought to have less chance of a direct hit, ended up directly in Ian’s path.
Ian also experienced rapid intensification, perhaps influenced by climate change, which meant its wind speed increased dramatically as it passed through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall.
Emergency managers typically need at least 48 hours to successfully evacuate areas of Southwest Florida. However, voluntary evacuation orders for Lee County were issued less than 48 hours before landfall, and for some areas became mandatory just 24 hours before the storm made landfall. That was less than the amount of time listed in Lee County’s own emergency management plan.
While some cited a lack of sufficient time to evacuate as the reason they were behind, there are other factors that may also have suppressed evacuations in some of the hardest-hit areas.
To properly follow evacuation orders, people first need to know their evacuation zone. Research from other areas of the country indicates that many people do not. That’s why websites locating evacuation zones in affected counties were crucial. However, so many people were checking their zones that some of these websites crashed in the days before the storm.
Our own research (and others) indicates that mandatory evacuation orders can lead to higher evacuation rates than voluntary ones. First hearing that their area was under a voluntary evacuation order may have made some residents less concerned and less likely to take action once the evacuation became mandatory. It may also have caused confusion about what people were supposed to do in the crucial days and hours before the storm made landfall.
In areas where evacuation orders were later issued, people who did not expect to evacuate needed to quickly find and understand evacuation zone information. In addition, it takes time to communicate evacuation orders to an entire community and for people to decide what to do, pack their belongings, find a place to go and organize how to get there, often amid heavy traffic and other complications and obstacles .
Also important to Ian was how previous personal experiences with hurricanes influence people’s decisions. Some areas devastated by Ian have had several close calls with hurricanes in the recent past, including Hurricanes Charley and Irma. While those storms affected many of the same communities, they did not have the same impacts as Ian, which may have created a false sense of security among some residents.
As Fort Myers City Councilman Liston Bochette III said, “Obviously, about one out of ten times when you’re warned, it happens. Well, this is that one time. And people didn’t evacuate like they should have . And I think we’re ruined in … this is a little corner of the paradise world and we’ve ruined ourselves with a passive mentality that it won’t affect us.”
In addition to a false sense of security from previous crashes among some residents, others who were in the areas of Florida hardest hit by Hurricane Ian may not have had any personal experience with such powerful storms. This is likely to be true for the millions of people who have moved to Florida in recent decades, especially those who moved from areas where hurricanes are rare or do not occur. In Ian, as in some past storms, some people recognized the danger too late.
It is still too early to draw conclusions about what lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of communication in the run-up to Hurricane Ian, but some things are clear. People need to know that they are in an area where they are being asked to evacuate, and waiting until the storm is underway to find out their area may be too late. Emergency managers need to educate people in advance of impending storms while also developing more robust websites to handle inquiries in the days leading up to the storm.
Public officials and the media should continue to provide concrete information about where, how and why to evacuate, which can be critical factors in people’s decisions to leave.
Many lists of available shelters included clear indications of whether they allowed pets or could accommodate people with special needs, which was likely helpful to the more than 33,000 people who used the public shelter system. However, among those who did not evacuate, pets and disability continue to be cited as reasons, indicating that more outreach and evacuation support is needed in these areas specifically.
Hurricane Ian focused residents’ attention on important elements of storm preparedness, such as their evacuation zones. For future storms, it will be important to continue helping people, especially the most vulnerable, understand how and why to evacuate, often under rapidly changing forecasts. Hurricane Ian showed that sometimes the worst really does happen.