Why Hurricane Ikes Certain Death Warning Failed
As residents of Galveston, Texas, were allowed to return to the
devastated island this week, experts puzzled over why tens of thousands
of others had remained during Hurricane Ike—despite the National
Weather Service"s "certain death" warning.
Gene Hafele, director of the Houston-Galveston National Weather Service
office, said about 500,000 people in and around Galveston were in a
mandatory evacuation zone, and only about 300,000 left.
Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami,
estimated there were about 140,000 people in the smaller, "certain
death" zone. About 70 percent of those residents evacuated. That left
nearly 40,000 people to contend with the worst of the storm surge.
There is "no one answer" why so many Texas residents ignored the evacuation order, Read said.
Some probably refused to leave because they"d been caught in the chaotic evacuation for Hurricane Rita in 2005, he said.
During that event, roads out of Houston became gridlocked.
Officials later estimated that about 90 people died during the 2005
evacuation because of heatstroke, dehydration, and other causes.
Read also said that some of those who refused to leave during
Hurricane Ike stayed because they have an intense anti-government
attitude. "They think, No one tells me what to do," Read said.
The National Weather Service"s Hafele said officials decided to issue
the "certain death" evacuation warning because the storm surge from
Hurricane Ike would be unlike anything seen on the Texas coast since an
unnamed hurricane in 1915.
"People who were living in the storm surge zone had never experienced a
surge like this and had no way of knowing how severe this could be,"
Hafele said he was puzzled by why some residents of
Bolivar Peninsula—a low-lying, more rural community just north of
Galveston—defied the evacuation order.
The peninsula took the worst of Ike"s storm surge, and dozens
of homes and other buildings there simply disappeared after the
"The people who live on Bolivar understand their vulnerability," Hafele
said. "Some have lived out there an unusually long time, and they"ve
experienced a lot of storms. Why some of those people decided not to
leave really is beyond me."
False Sense of Security
Jay Baker, a professor of geography at Florida
State University in Gainesville, has studied how people respond to hurricane warnings.
The main reason people don"t comply with evacuation orders is
because they think they will be safe despite the warning to leave,
"They think the storm will miss them, or they think they will be safe in their homes even if the storm does hit," Baker said.
There"s also the fact that evacuating can be an expensive and
very difficult task, and that can prompt people to decide not to leave,
In addition, the National Hurricane Center"s Read added, live
news reports from the ground in Galveston may have given some viewers a
false sense of security. "Viewers think, It"s OK for the cameraman to
stay there, why not me?"
Florida State"s Baker said, "I"m not convinced that there"s any
kind of deep-seated psychological reason. People just make poor
judgments. They don"t know how bad it can get if they stay."
Billy Wagner is the chief emergency management specialist for
Early Alert, a private hurricane warning and emergency management
consulting service based in Tampa, Florida.
The availability of so much hurricane information on the
Internet may be another reason why some people decide to ignore
evacuation orders, Wagner said.
Amateur forecasters don"t have the skill and training to
evaluate hurricane data and make sound decisions about whether they
should evacuate, he added.
The National Hurricane Center, on the other hand, has the
"overall picture" of the approaching storm and also is communicating
with local officials about whether to issue evacuation orders, he said.
"They need to listen to public officials," Wagner said. "I"m
always concerned that too many people think they"re tropical
meteorologists now and are second-guessing what"s taking place."
Read, the National Hurricane Center director, said forecasters
will be taking a "cold, hard" look after the hurricane season at
hurricane warnings and how people responded to them. The review could
prompt changes in how the center issues warnings, he said.
Willie Drye is author of Storm of the Century: the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books
for National Geographic News
September 26, 2008