To evacuate or not to evacuate?


Special to the Recorder

To evacuate or not to evacuate? Some 460,000 residents in Duval County faced this difficult question last week. As a resident of the Beaches, I have asked it myself. Most of us have watched the news and weather channels and saw how the hurricane track came dangerously close to our beaches. It was obvious that something bad was going to hit our area. On Wednesday, Oct. 5, the mandatory evacuation order was issued by Mayor Lenny Curry.

At this point, most of us had started to get our homes ready. We had cleaned our back yard, tied down all yard furniture and some even boarded up windows. Then, we faced the difficult question of whether we should evacuate. Now that the house was ready, it felt so safe to stay, and many residents were frustrated with the evacuation order.

Evacuating your home is a difficult question. You think of everything that could happen while you are away. You imagine that a window could break and water could leak into your house, wind could blow through your home and destroy everything you have. The roof could be damaged. And you aren’t there to fix it. You think of the risk of looting while you aren’t there. You fear that re-entry won’t be allowed until days after the hurricane. You don’t know where to go during the evacuation. And, what if the hurricane is less powerful than expected? All these are legitimate questions.

Public officials have the same concerns when they decide to order the evacuation of a community. They know how difficult and stressful it is for residents to leave their home. They also have a responsibility to care for their residents and will be held accountable if they don’t take the appropriate measures. It’s a wise decision to evacuate an area once it becomes clear that a powerful hurricane will hit. Hurricanes are unpredictable disasters, and it’s impossible to know with precision which areas will be impacted most and what the impact will be.

We saw this with Hurricane Matthew. Several areas in the Beaches communities suffered no damage, while other areas on the St. Johns River were affected by severe flooding. Emergency management officials don’t know beforehand which areas will be hit most, and they obviously can’t order an evacuation only for people who will be affected. They have to evacuate large areas that are at risk – the entire Beaches area for example.

My research on disaster preparedness tells me that evacuating dangerous areas before a hurricane is a risk-management strategy. Disaster preparedness is like an insurance policy. You face a risk, you don’t know when and where it will hit, but you can take measures to mitigate its impact.

We all do the same when we buy insurance for our health, our house or our car. We hope we will never have to use it, but if we have an issue, it will cover the costs. This is the same when preparing for a disaster. We board up our windows, clean up our yard and evacuate our house. We hope to come back and find our house with no damage. It doesn’t mean that preparing the house and evacuating was wrong.

The evacuation in Duval County was a good decision. It saved the life of some people. The vast majority of us, however, found that our house was safe and that we would have survived the hurricane by staying home. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have evacuated. Unfortunately, nobody can tell in advance which houses will be affected and evacuate only these residents while all others stay. The damages left by Hurricane Matthew were less than expected in the Jacksonville Beaches communities. But, it could have been worse. It’s important that we all continue to take future evacuation orders very seriously.

Dr. Nathan Kunz is an assistant professor of operations management in the Coggin College of Business at the University of North Florida. His research focuses on disaster management and humanitarian logistics. Before his academic career, he worked as a director of operations in a Swiss humanitarian organization.