Community Evacuation: What Works and What Hurts

Sheriff-Mike-WilliamsBy Sheriff Mike Williams
Jacksonville (FL) Sheriff’s Office

When a storm like the recent Hurricane Matthew is headed our way, we need to persuade residents to evacuate, which can be a challenge.

If you’ve lived in Florida any amount of time, you become your own hurricane expert. You’re always going to have people who think, “It didn’t happen last time, so we’re not going to abide by an evacuation order.”

In terms of a catastrophic storm, like an Andrew Category 4 or 5, I think you would have more cooperation from people.

I have been through these storms — named storms where we activate — maybe two or three a year for about 10 years, and I, just like they do, remember so many times a big storm didn’t materialize.

This was one of those that was potentially borderline. The issue with these storms is that they’re all different. Weather is dynamic. Not every Category 2 is the same. This had potential for storm surge. We were going to have more water than in the past and that can cause big issues for everybody and be life threatening.

The one you are trying to survive may not be just like the ones you’ve been through.

Beach communities especially have that “We can tough it out” attitude. During Hurricane Matthew, we probably had a 30 percent evacuation of the beaches.

We had the best-case scenario. We did not get a direct hit from the storm, but we had a lot of water and it scared a lot of people who are now thinking they will leave next time, which could be next year.

The storm wobbled and hit the coastline and basically bounced around us. Still, the damage was significant.

When we decide to evacuate, we take it seriously. We get ready to inject reality into people’s assumptions, and we get the Coast Guard and fire and rescue ready to go.

Getting the right message out is important, but you also have to get it out at the right time and to the right people. You have to present a united front with other agencies, and you’ve got to be committed to the message: We need you to leave.

You’re battling against human nature. You can’t half-step it or suggest people go. This is why you have to save it for when it’s serious. It’s best to announce an evacuation early, which is tricky because you’re dealing with the weather and there are a lot of unknowns.

I think the smart play is to say, “Based on what we know, and based on the timetable, here’s what we anticipate from this storm,” and make the case for people to leave.

Some people are going to ignore evacuation orders. They make the decision, putting their own lives in danger – and sometimes their children — and subsequently endangering the rescue teams.

We have to send people out to conduct rescues as soon as we can do it responsibly. They won’t resent the people who defied the order. They will give all they have. It’s just how they’re made. You see it every single day and a storm is not different.

If this had been the case after Hurricane Matthew, we would have had no shortage of people to send out. They would have done it if I asked them to, no question.

When it comes to issuing evacuation orders, here are key things that work for us:

  • Have relationships in place before the crisis begins

Collaboration with the mayor, the governor, the media, the utility companies, the school board and every city department will help you when you sit down at the table to make big decisions. We have a working relationship with the governor’s office. He is really engaged at the local level.

Hurricane Matthew was probably our closest call in years. The mayor and I had several conversations, and he was there offering resources.

We originally thought it would be a week before people could return but the governor reached out to the National Guard and arranged things. It helps when he’s plugged in that way.

The same players work together so much it benefits us a ton. We operate under unified command. We all get along.

You do not want a crisis environment, where the players are under personal and political pressure, to be the moment you are getting to know the person you are working with for the safety of others. This also applies to other crises, such as in the anti-terrorism arena. The command structures are exactly the same.

Everybody has to be prepared; you can’t put it off until the pressure is on. The planning, the training and the collaborative efforts must be ready to engage.

It’s also important to establish one social media channel as the official source of information. We retweet one another, crafting messages that are factual and busting rumors. That’s become important for agencies to do in recent years

  • Decide early and announce early

With Hurricane Matthew impending, we wanted to give people time to leave.

Years ago with Hurricane Charlie, the city leaders waited too late to give the order, and the traffic jammed and people turned around and went home.

  • Give the evacuation order, strenuously, often

You want to stress the seriousness of it and the strength of the storm.

We were in conversation with the governor’s office early. We monitored traffic and saw that very few people were leaving. The mayor and I pounded that message home in two or three press conferences a day.

Part of the discussion is that there will be a point in time when we will not come get you. We won’t put our men and women in harm’s way because you refused to leave.

  • Get people back in their homes as fast as possible

The sheriff and the mayor were committed to getting people back to the beach. It was done in record time. Based on damage assessment, we let the residents back as early as was responsible — the electricity was safe, the water was usable.

If we make people wait eight hours and they get back to their house and there’s, say, just a broken tree branch, they’re going to be angry about having been told to leave. We did not want that undercurrent.

We need to have the residents’ trust and confidence the next time we ask them to do this.

Bridges, roads and traffic flow all managed with expediency so they would feel good about leaving again if asked. Inspecting bridges started early to prevent that.

We got lots of thank yous for that.

 

Sheriff Williams began his career at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in 1991. He served in multiple roles with the JSO, including director of investigations and homeland security. He retired from service in 2014 as the appointed director of patrol and enforcement. He was elected as Jacksonville’s sheriff on July 1, 2015 for a four-year term.

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