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Sandy's devastation holds lessons for complacent Tampa Bay

Tom Iovino has a story to tell, and he hopes it will move us.

Literally.

The Pinellas County hurricane preparedness specialist has been in New York helping in relief efforts in Superstorm Sandy's wake. And gathering stories to bring back to us in Tampa Bay.

Through anecdotes, images and video, Iovino hopes to help convince stubborn and complacent coastal residents to get the heck out when a mandatory evacuation is called.

"I saw with my own two eyes what these storms can do," he says.

• • •

Despite days of dire forecasts and explicit warnings, hundreds of thousands of people in New York and New Jersey ignored mandatory evacuation orders as Sandy closed in. Now, after scores of deaths and harrowing escapes, emergency officials are looking at what more can be done to persuade residents to get out when their lives are in danger.

"The issue of those who either can't or won't abide by those orders — that is a question that we have to address," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a tour of ravaged Staten Island.

The same troubling pattern has been seen in previous storms, and the ideas tried across the country include stern warnings about the dangers of staying behind, moral appeals not to imperil rescuers, scary ads, and laws that threaten fines or jail time. Yet people refuse to leave, and some come to regret it — that is, if they survive.

"Staying there was the stupidest thing I've ever done," acknowledged Steve Shapiro, a 55-year-old Staten Island resident who witnessed Sandy's surge lift nearby houses off their foundations. Two neighbors, a 13-year-old girl and her 55-year-old father, died when the rushing water destroyed their house.

It's stories like that that Iovino is collecting. "We want to learn from them what can happen if you choose not to go," he said by phone from a warehouse in Brooklyn. "We want to bring back the pictures, the stories.

"It's a critical need."

It's an old saw: We are not just a number; we are human beings. So is it any surprise that numbers, data, statistics fail to strike us? But flesh out the story, shade in the details. The more we learn about the people, the more we realize: Maybe it could be us.

Iovino says he met a man from Staten Island who elected to ride the storm out at home. As he cowered upstairs — the first floor was underwater — he looked out the window and saw his neighbor's house float by. As his own home groaned and heaved, he leaped out the window onto his neighbor's roof. Just in time: A moment later, his house was driftwood.

"We want to take stories like this back to Tampa Bay," Iovino said.

• • •

Brooklyn Borough president Marty Markowitz said officials should work to make sure residents can feel safe in shelters and confident their homes will be safeguarded in their absence.

But to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it's a matter of changing minds, not tactics. The city notified people by such means as automated phone calls and sending around police officers with loudspeakers.

"People have got to start learning that when we say something, we mean it. It's based on the best prognostication," he said.

Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people and left others stranded for days on roofs, in attics and on streets in flooded New Orleans in 2005, starkly illustrated to the rest of the country the importance of getting out.

Often, though, people think a storm won't be so bad or their homes are built tough enough. Some want to avoid shelters or the expense of staying in a hotel. Still others worry that their homes will be looted.

Florida State University professor Jay Baker, who has studied the subject for decades, said it is not unusual for one-third to half of all residents to defy mandatory evacuation orders, especially in places that haven't been hit hard recently.

Sandy was blamed for more than 100 deaths in 10 states, with many victims drowning in their homes or while belatedly trying to escape. In New York City alone, 35 of the 43 deaths were from drowning, largely in areas ordered to evacuate. Other people survived after police and firefighters risked their lives in churning floodwaters to reach them.

Only about half of the more than 350,000 people in New York City who were told to flee did so, officials say. New Jersey officials estimated that 90 percent of the 115,000 people ordered to evacuate obeyed. But the areas under mandatory orders in New Jersey included many vacation homes. In New York, the threatened neighborhoods consisted mostly of year-round residences.

• • •

Sure, but that's there. It's different here. Isn't it?

Tom Iovino says no. In the last 15 years there have been only three mandatory evacuations called in Tampa Bay: for Georges in 1998 and for Charley and Jeanne in 2004.

"We try to be measured with our evacuations," calling for them only when a threat is sensed.

So why don't people pack up their photo albums, load up the kids and the canned goods and go?

Iovino likens the situation to a house fire. You wouldn't stay in a burning building, right?

Of course not. We've all seen flames before; we know what they can do.

But when it comes to hurricanes, we don't really know. The bay area hasn't taken a direct hit since 1921. Our collective knowledge is hazy. But stories can help us remember.

• • •

Ginger Matthews has lived all her 59 years in Long Beach, N.Y., long enough to remember Hurricane Donna's strike nearby in 1960. But determined to watch over her home and the coin laundry she owns nearby, she defied evacuation orders.

"I would never have imagined something so devastating," she recalled later, after at least 4 feet of water rushed into the newly refinished downstairs apartment in her split-level home. "Nobody would have convinced me to leave. … I wanted to be here to prevent anything if it was going to happen. But that was senseless."

In urging evacuations before Sandy, officials around the metropolitan area sounded a note of moral obligation: Think of the emergency workers who might have to risk their lives to rescue you. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie put it in his usual sledgehammer style, staying is "both stupid and selfish."

There are other avenues to try to get people to obey:

Punishments: Some states make it a crime to ignore an evacuation order. North Carolina recently raised the potential fine from $200 to $1,000 and the possible jail term from 20 to 60 days. New York has a similar law that carries up to 90 days in jail. In Pinellas, disobeying a mandatory evacuation order is a second-degree misdemeanor.

Still, it's unclear how often such laws are enforced, if ever. Indeed, Bloomberg said there would be no arrests in the city for defying evacuation orders during Sandy.

Some scholars suggest it's legally possible to force people to leave. It could be seen as analogous to quarantining people in disease outbreaks, said Amy Fairchild, a Columbia University public health professor who co-wrote a paper on the subject.

But in general, the image of forcing people out of their homes, or arresting them for staying, has little political or practical appeal. As Iovino points out, where would they put people they arrested? The jails are full as it is.

Under a principle known as the rescue doctrine, a rescuer who gets hurt saving someone can sue if the emergency was the result of negligence. That arguably could apply if an emergency worker was injured rescuing someone who ignored an order to evacuate, said Hayes Hunt, a Philadelphia lawyer who mulled over the issue on his blog, From the Sidebar.

It's not clear, though, whether any emergency department would want to take that step against a citizen.

SCARE TACTICS: When Hurricane Rita threatened Louisiana a month after Katrina, then-Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco suggested that people who defied evacuation orders should "write their Social Security numbers on their arms with indelible ink" so that their corpses could be more easily identified. (Rita ultimately pointed up a different problem: More than 100 people died during the clogged and chaotic evacuation of Houston.)

Some communities ask residents to sign waivers documenting their refusal to leave — a tactic that drives home the danger.

As hurricane season started in 2006, Florida launched controversial ads featuring genuine, panicky 911 calls from people begging for help during 2004's Hurricane Ivan and being told it was too dangerous to send rescuers.

It's unclear exactly what effect such scare strategies have on evacuation rates, though.

The most effective approach? Going door to door to tell residents in person that they should flee, but that's often impossible with big populations and short time frames, said Florida State's Baker.

It can help to enlist community leaders to spread the word, so people hear it repeatedly from trusted figures and not just from politicians at podiums, said Richard Olson, a disaster risk specialist at Florida International University in Miami.

Officials and scientists might look for a more easily understood way to explain the threat of a storm's surge, now often expressed as a number of feet above normal tides, said Arthur Lerner-Lam, a disaster risk assessment expert at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

• • •

Tom Iovino and Tampa Bay hurricane preparedness specialists are taking a different avenue: making it all relatable.

"There's a classic story from Hurricane Ike" in 2008, Iovino says. A family with children trusted that their Galveston house was sturdy enough and took shelter in their attic. As the storm surge worsened, the family called for rescue. And when rescuers arrived, was the father grateful?

Probably. But he was also very angry. "No one told me it was going to be this bad," he complained.

Hard to believe, in the age of the Weather Channel and Weather Underground and weather app this and special weather report that. But if we haven't been through it — and most of us haven't — it's difficult to comprehend.

If personal, engraved invitations are out, what does it take to get someone to evacuate?

Another comparison Iovino points to is seat belts. We buckle up almost automatically when we get into the car, even though no one ever expects to get into an accident on the way to Publix or the ball game. But if we haven't been in a wreck ourselves, we probably know someone who has, or at the least, we've done some highway rubbernecking.

"Life is full of choices," Iovino concedes.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30. We'll have six months to ponder the next season, to decide if we'll stay or go as the winds bear down on us. Six months to decide how we want to write our story's end.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

On the Web

Pinellas County Emergency Management is

documenting Superstorm Sandy relief efforts at pinellasem.tumblr.com.

Think ahead

"There's no pause button

on disaster," says Tom Iovino, Pinellas County hurricane preparedness specialist. You know a hurricane is coming a week ahead, so "use every minute of that to the best effect." He advises making a plan early. "You can't figure it out on the fly."

Sandy's devastation holds lessons for complacent Tampa Bay 11/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 24, 2012 3:31am]

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