One lesson from Harvey and Irma: Better evacuations

When Hurricane Irma veered toward Naples, Fla., it was too late to evacuate so thousands of people took shelter at Germain Arena on Saturday.
When Hurricane Irma veered toward Naples, Fla., it was too late to evacuate so thousands of people took shelter at Germain Arena on Saturday. Los Angeles Times/TNS

As Hurricane Irma churned toward Florida, I was talking last week with a Californian who has multiple relatives in southwestern Florida. But a couple of the man’s grown sons hadn’t evacuated.

Why not? “Well, the kids are in school.”


The very next day, the schools were closed, along with most non-emergency public services, as local officials ordered a mandatory evacuation. What if they hadn’t closed the schools? Would everyone just hang around town, lest their children miss a moment of medieval history or pre-algebra?

During the first days of the Harvey deluge in Houston, the debate went like this: Why on earth didn’t they do a mandatory evacuation? The counter-argument: You can’t evacuate a metropolitan area of more than 6.5 million people. Look what happened in 2005, when scores of people died during a massive evacuation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner argued the latter, sticking to his guns even as the people who had elected him were climbing on rooftops to hope for rescue. Besides, he complained, any evacuation would have to be extremely well coordinated.

Um, that’s kind of his job, don’t you think?

Still, I’ll grant him this much: It’s pretty much impossible to evacuate a metropolitan area with millions of people. Even on a good day, Houston’s highways are only a little better than those in Los Angeles.

The problem is that all this black-and-white thinking – evacuate everybody or don’t evacuate anyone – isn’t helping anyone. A better approach is needed as climate change ramps up the number of weather-related disasters.

Yes, it’s impossible to say for sure that any single event is caused by global warming, but look at it this way: Scientists predicted many years ago that we would see big increases in catastrophic weather – more powerful hurricanes, worse flooding and bigger wildfires in the West.

With Houston just beginning the Harvey recovery, more storms lined up in the Atlantic and a wildfire that’s burned for two months and consumed more than half a million acres in Montana, denial is something we can’t afford.

Maybe this nation lacks the will to combat climate change under the wholly incompetent man in the White House these days, but at least it can work on coping with the worst of its blindness to science by creating and carrying out better evacuation plans, ones that consist of more than, “Hey, folks, you might want to think about leaving now, but only if you want to.” Or even, “Hey, get out.”

If public officials have the luck of being able to foretell disaster – something that can’t be done with earthquakes, for example – they should have detailed, proactive plans for removing people from danger as early as possible. Those should include closing schools several days in advance, so that people get moving early. Then use those school buses to evacuate the most vulnerable people first, and use closed schools in other areas as evacuation centers.

While not everyone in a vast metropolitan area can be evacuated in a couple of days, a lot of people can be evacuated over a week, making subsequent rescues easier and less risky. Maybe the hurricane does less damage than forecast, as appears the case with Irma, and money has been spent unnecessarily.

But with the nation ignoring for far too long the need for drastic measures to combat climate change, did we really think we were going to get away scot-free?

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.