Florida Prepares To Evacuate Residents Ahead Of Hurricane Irma
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Hurricane Irma has made landfall in the Caribbean, causing widespread damage and flooding on the islands in its path. The Category 5 storm is headed toward Florida, where it's expected to hit this weekend. This evening, a mandatory evacuation takes effect for people in the Florida Keys. Visitors were asked to leave this morning. Elsewhere in South Florida, officials have advised people in low-lying areas to get out and to leave early.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered a mandatory evacuation for 150,000 people who live on barrier islands in some costal areas on Biscayne Bay. That takes effect tomorrow at 9 a.m. Already stores are selling out of bottled water, and some gas stations are out of gas. Florida Governor Rick Scott said he was working to get more fuel into the state, but he asked people not to fill their tanks if they're not going far. And according to John Renne, people may not have to go far even if they're told to evacuate.
Renne studies evacuation planning at Florida Atlantic University. He says unlike New Orleans where everyone has to go north, places like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach focus on moving people just a short distance inland.
JOHN RENNE: They just get people out of harm's way, away from the coast and away from vulnerable, flood-prone areas within the region. So an evacuation may only be just a couple of miles.
SIEGEL: Miami-Dade has thrown a lot of resources at evacuation planning. Would we see evidence of that work over the next few days?
RENNE: Miami-Dade is 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 that don't have cars, the homeless, people who are medically homebound. So yes, Miami-Dade is very well-prepared. They've been working on these plans since the early '90s, since Hurricane Andrew.
SIEGEL: And you've drawn a distinction between what the evacuation of New Orleans means and what the evacuation of Miami-Dade means. It's not the same thing.
RENNE: No, but there are some really important lessons from what we saw in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. And I lived there at the time and evacuated for Katrina. There were really no set evacuation plans other than driving out of the city using contraflow. But people that didn't have a car didn't have a way out.
After Katrina, they put together what's called the city-assisted evacuation plan. And it's been exercised, and it works well. And part of the reason it works well is because a nonprofit organization called Evacuteer has stepped up to the plate to partner with the city to bring volunteers to help people with needs to evacuate use the system - the buses and other means - to be able to evacuate. And I think South Florida and the whole country could learn from New Orleans and Evacuteer.
SIEGEL: But South Florida - you've told me when it evacuates, you evacuate people who are in flood-prone areas, not everybody.
RENNE: Sure. But what we'll find unfortunately is that a lot of people in South Florida who are in flood-prone areas may choose not to evacuate because they may not have the resources. They might be elderly residents who are living independently. And so, you know, they're relying upon the government. And the more we can bring in social service organizations, nonprofit organizations to help them with their evacuation, even if it's only for a few miles, the more prepared and the better everyone will be, and the less tragic the event could become.
SIEGEL: When we talked to people who were urged to evacuate from a hurricane area and didn't, the reasons often are Grandma really can't be moved, and it would be very uncomfortable. Or seven people live in the house, and the car seats four. Or we've got two dogs, and we weren't about to leave them in the house. I mean do planners confront all of these questions facing people at the moment of evacuation?
RENNE: Absolutely. But I'd say we have a long way to go, especially the pets. You know, people really do make decisions based on whether they can bring their pets along to shelters or whether they can put them in a car or how they can take them with them. And so I think we have a long way to go, and we need to sit back and learn from this event and continually work on making our evacuations more pet-friendly because that is a very important part of our society and people's decisions.
SIEGEL: That's John Renne, associate professor at Florida Atlantic University's School of Urban and Regional Planning. Thanks for talking with us.
RENNE: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.