Disaster expert rates Irma planning and response

Richard Olson researches the political fallout from natural disasters and has been involved in more than 20 field responses and post-disaster investigations. He is director of FIU’s Extreme Events Institute and International Hurricane Research Center and a professor of politics and international relations. His research has been funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Science Foundation.

FIU News: As we in Florida continue to recover from Hurricane Irma, what are your impressions?
It could have been much, much worse. If the storm had held to the original forecasts for a Florida “east coast” storm at Cat 4 or above, we would have experienced a state-level catastrophe. The insured and uninsured losses would have been much greater. Overall, I believe that the emergency management system worked pretty well.

People appear to have complied at very high rates with local evacuation orders, and record numbers took shelter by leaving the state. The question is, what did “evacuation” mean when ordered by governments?
I think the language got a little loose as the storm approached. Official orders were to evacuate zones A and B along most of the Florida coast. People then had a choice: Do they go inland to friends, to shelters, to hotels? Others heard “evacuate” and looked at the size of the storm and decided to leave the state. We don’t know if people understood that they only had to get out of zones A and B. It’s an interesting question how the word evacuate is interpreted by people in various zones.

And the government didn’t specify how or what to do?
It’s hard for government to specify how to evacuate when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of people. You don’t particularly want government trying to tell people exactly where to go, except at the very last minute. People have to decide what their comfort zone is, whether that is staying with family in nearby Kendall or driving to Georgia.

Much more work needs to be done on planning and evacuating senior and special-needs populations, particularly in areas where they are most vulnerable and, frankly, poorer.

You have talked about a “Harvey Effect,” that Hurricane Harvey’s battering of Houston not long before Irma’s arrival in Florida impacted our high evacuation rates.
That earlier disaster was highly covered by the media and on social media. The bottom line is that we don’t know yet empirically if people who were particularly affected by the coverage of Harvey were more likely to evacuate to an out-of-state location or if, at the very least, compliance rates were higher in our coastal zones than would have been the case without the very fresh and vivid visual lessons of Harvey. It’ll be interesting to see, once the evaluations are done, what compliance rates were, but I suspect they were higher than we’ve usually seen in the past.

We marked the 25th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew just as Harvey began battering Houston and a week before we started preparing for Irma. What are the greatest legacies of Andrew in terms of lessons learned?
South Florida took Andrew in the teeth. And so you always expect jurisdictions that took the most damage to be the most reactive in terms of improving standards. South Florida learned a hell of a lesson with Andrew about codes and code enforcement. The South Florida building code developed from 1994 on is the major and principal outcome of Andrew, and it has two components: the code stringency itself and the actual enforcement of the code. Those are two different things and they have to go together, which Andrew revealed. If you have a weak code that is poorly enforced, you get massive damage.

So the question for the state is, does it want to toughen up the land use and building code standards, and a good place to start is the South Florida building code.

You had said that post-evacuation planning was lacking following Irma. What would you ideally like to see?
Return planning must equal evacuation planning. Public officials and emergency management people must be as vocal and consistent in their messaging after as they were before impact. There’s a tendency—and I get it—for officials and political leaders to let down when they’ve got so much to handle. But people need information about how to phase back and to what they are returning. These issues need to be planned and messaged just as clearly as the evacuation was.

Is there anything else you want to add?
I still am concerned about poorer people and how they’re going to recover. In this case, a lot more people in the middle- and upper-income groups might have ridden out of the storm out of state. The poor are kind of stuck sheltering in place or going to a shelter or staying with family members or friends that are only marginally safer. This is a fundamental socioeconomic and moral and political issue. I’m not sure we can do anything about that, but it has to be part of a public discourse. We can’t pretend that this isn’t going to be an issue with every disaster. It always is.