In case you hadn’t heard, a hurricane hit the state of Florida last week.
Hurricane Irma first made landfall in the Florida Keys, then made a second landfall in southwestern Florida on Marco Island. Early estimates on the damage inflicted by the storm range from $50 billion to $70 billion.
Forecasters expected the situation to be much worse. If some pre-landfall prognostications — which had Irma making landfall 100 miles east in Miami-Dade County — had been correct, the damage figures would have been much higher.
However, based on those early prognostications, millions were told to evacuate from southeastern Florida’s three most populous counties: Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
As the storm got closer to Florida, evacuation areas were expanded. And near the end, the entire state was under some type of Hurricane Irma advisory except for the state’s three westernmost counties: Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa.
As one would expect, such an enormous displacement resulted in a lot of gridlock in Florida and points beyond. The Florida Turnpike and interstates 10, 75 and 95 were bumper-to-bumper for dozens of miles in various locations. The price of gasoline shot up 20-30 cents per gallon (partially due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey weeks earlier). Hotel rooms were booked solid.
Yes, a lot of residents and visitors to the Sunshine State were inconvenienced by Hurricane Irma.
Now, if it were up to Frances Coleman, the former opinion page editor of the Press-Register and now a freelance columnist for AL.com, those of us in Florida are expected to suck it up.
“Sooner or later, and probably sooner, someone’s going to have to say this to some of the people of Florida, so I will take one for the team: Quit your bitching,” Coleman wrote as a lede sentence for her screed about those unhappy with the circumstances.
Taking such a courageous stance might feel good at a childish level: You chose to live in Florida, so deal with the consequences. But that’s not the way the world works.
People aren’t going to shrug off this disruption in their lives. They’re going to remember all the bad stuff from the evacuation — traffic, gas shortages, time away from home and work, playing catch-up for the next few weeks to get back to where they were before Irma’s approach.
Yes, for those people impacted who live on barrier islands, perhaps it is fair to say you should have known what to expect when you decided to live there.
What about those living farther inland? What about the people that didn’t sustain damage except for a power outage? What about the people that didn’t even lose power, but were encouraged by officals to evacuate anyway?
Florida Gov. Rick Scott was quick to call for the evacuation of southeastern Florida. He based his decision-making on the best available data, which was provided by government agencies. The data predicted a landfall near Miami.
He did what any reasonable elected leader would do: Tell people to get out of Miami and other points in Florida.
That data turned out to be inaccurate. People left, but most came back to find their homes mostly intact.
The question to ask is how this outcome will impact future human behavior. What happens the next time a Category 5 hurricane threatens the Florida peninsula? Will people be as willing to leave? Or will they say, “They said the same thing about Irma and nothing serious happened to us, so we’re going to stay put,” and potentially be in danger?
The easy response is “better safe than sorry,” but that’s not good enough. After dropping $1,000-plus to avoid what they were told would be a catastrophe, a lot of people won’t leave next time.
And that is why our federal government needs to do a better job with tropical weather modeling. Predicting the weather isn’t easy, especially when a jog two or three miles in the eastern Atlantic can change a storm’s trajectory by hundreds of miles as it approaches North America.
But we know it is possible for our government to do a better job than it has.
There are two computer models meteorologists like to watch during these storms. One is the European model (EURO) run by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, and the other is the Global Forecast System (GFS) model run by NOAA.
With Hurricane Irma, the EURO model was far more accurate than the GFS model.
That begs the question: How is that the Europeans — who haven’t had a hurricane come in striking range of their continent since Hurricane Debbie in 1961 — are more accurate than the U.S., where tropical weather is an annual occurrence?
The inaccuracy, albeit by only a hundred miles on a giant map, is where the government could fail to perform one of its primary duties, which is to keep people safe.
By not being able to provide the most accurate data possible, people make decisions with the idea that it is better to be safe than sorry. But then the next time or the time after that, it will more resemble the boy who cried wolf.
Precautionary measures are fine. In a post-Katrina era, our elected leaders seem to be fearful of facing a backlash similar to that faced by President George W. Bush in 2005. With the cloud of politics hanging over our policymakers, they could be prone to taking unnecessary proactive measures.
Those come at a cost, and we’ll have to see how responsive people are the next time our leaders declare a mass evacuation.