The last several weeks have been full of weather – wildfires in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho; drought in North Dakota; flooding in Texas; and most recently Hurricane Irma in Florida. Weather related events like these happen all the time, but they only become disasters when they cross paths with humans.
Natural disasters don’t discriminate - they touch everyone in their path. Yet not everyone will be affected in the same way. The English punk rock band The Clash famously posed the question on the minds of many as they watched Hurricane Irma move across the Caribbean towards Florida - Should I Stay or Should I Go?
The question as to whether one evacuates or not is not as simple as it first seems. Brian Wolshon, a transportation engineer who studies evacuations at Louisiana State University, writes “Evacuations are enormously costly and disruptive, not just to the areas that are being evacuated but to the areas they’re going to.” Taking a deeper look at who moves out of the path of a natural disaster and how they move, can shine light on inequalities in our society we often don’t see during more stable times.
I am in awe of how advanced our technologies have become in relation to tracking hurricanes. Floridians knew that when Governor Rick Scott told people to "leave now," he was not being overly cautious.
But not everyone was able to access the same form of transportation to move out of the path of the storm. The more affluent may have been able to fly out of southern Florida even after finding out that the price of a single seat from Miami to New York could cost more than $3,000. When I read this I laughed out loud in disbelief. The last time I flew to India just over a year ago, the cost of my roundtrip ticket from Chicago to New Delhi was less than $1500.00. Most people I know don’t have this kind of disposable income, which explains why so many Floridians got in their cars and drove north.
According to the Florida Department of Transportation more than 874,000 cars left Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma using the two main north-south arteries of I-95 and I-75. I remember driving both of these highways when my husband Michael and I lived in Gainesville. On a good day you could average 80 miles per hour. On a bad day, when there was an accident or fog, traffic could come to a dead stop. Those Floridians who left on September 5th and 6th were able to make the trek north at a good pace, however, if you waited until the 7th or the 8th to leave, you would have been crawling north between 20-40 mph. I don’t know about you, but thinking of all of those cars, being packed with nervous people starting and stopping every quarter of a mile sends my blood pressure through the roof and certainly doesn’t help my driver’s Tourette’s syndrome. Not only is the driving stressful, but where will you stay once out of harms’ way? Unless you had friends or relatives to stay with another thing one has to worry about is finding a hotel, which is yet another expense. Friends from graduate school who still live in Florida told me that hotels all over Georgia were sold out a full week in advance of Irma making landfall.
But what about those who don’t have a car and just couldn’t or wouldn’t evacuate? The first time disaster researchers really looked at this group of people was after hurricane Katrina, after the disaster in New Orleans. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and other cities really had no set evacuation plans other than driving out of the city. Those who didn’t have a car were out of luck.
Cities like Miami and Tampa learned from the failure in Louisiana. John Renne, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, told the Huffington Post that the Miami-Dade area is now considered to have the gold standard for evacuation planning in the United States. They have extensive plans to evacuate all segments of the population, including the vulnerable, those who don't have cars, the homeless, and people who are medically homebound. This could in fact account for the “estimated 208,000 people across six states, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, [who according to the Red Cross] stayed in shelters on Sunday night, … around 200,000 of those people were in Florida alone.
Clearly, the technological advances in tracking the weather coupled with solid evacuation plans helped to lessen the loss of life in Florida this last week and we have much to be thankful for. But it is important to remember that the hard work has yet to begin as people return home to see what damage has been done. My hope is that as communities plan for the future, they turn this natural disaster into an opportunity to address some of the social inequalities of the past.
Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.