Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Jun 16 2009


Hurricanes: You Can’t Win A Battle with the Wind

MIAMI – When Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast four years ago, the evacuation got started late and many people decided to ride out the storm. Bad decision.

A lot of people had harrowing experiences. About 1,800 others died, most because of flooding.

Hurricane specialists spend much of their time preaching that early planning can save lives.  It’s a nearly full time job for forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in the off-season.  They speak at schools, churches, town halls.

The 2009 Hurricane Season started on June 1 and forecasters are predicting half a dozen hurricanes, including two or three major ones. At a recent conference of disaster experts and journalists here in Miami, some examples of the right way and the wrong way to prepare for a storm came forth.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma hammered Cancun, the glitzy Mexican resort of spring break fame. Wilma hovered over the city’s high rise hotels and outlying residential areas for 40 hours. Six hundred thousand people huddled under high winds and drenching rain. Yet not one person was reported killed, according to Hugh Gladwin, a hurricane specialist at Florida International University in Miami.

“The government did a really wonderful job,” Professor Gladwin said at the conference, organized by his university. When the hurricane warnings came, people knew exactly what to do, where to go.  “Every household, at the beginning of the hurricane season, was given tickets with instructions on where to go for shelter,” he said. The hotels had also been briefed.

When four storms hit Haiti last year toward the end of summer, it was rather different. At least 800 people died. Help was slow in arriving. Most people were on their own.

Jacqueline Charles reported on the disaster for the Miami Herald.  Haiti seems perennially on the brink. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and it has not been blessed with good leadership.  Just as the hurricane season was beginning this year the Minister of the Interior of Haiti, Antoine Bien-Aime, told the Herald, “I can’t say we’re ready.”  He added: “But we are better prepared than last year.”

In the months before the storms in 2008, there were several changes of government in Haiti. Food and gasoline prices were going through the roof. People had taken to the streets.

“Haiti was so paralyzed when the first of the storms hit, that the country was off guard and unprepared,” Ms.  Charles said.

The deaths kept rising and editors at the Miami Herald asked Ms. Charles what was going wrong.  Why hadn’t people been moved out of places that had flooded previously?

“I asked people why they had not evacuated,” Ms. Charles said. “And they kept saying, ‘We didn’t have anywhere to go.’”

In one of the worst disaster zones, a river rushed over its bank at three in the morning.  “The river just started coming,” Ms. Charles said. “You had mothers taking children and running, just running.”

Some of the same storms that tormented Haiti also raked across Cuba. Cuba did far better. Whatever else you might say about Cuba, the country is organized, block by block.

When the weather becomes dicey, the member of the Committee to Defend the Revolution on your block – the block captain - gives the order to evacuate. And that is exactly what people do.

In Florida and Texas and Louisiana and elsewhere along the hurricane coasts in the United States, police officers sometimes go out knocking on doors as storms approach. They tell people there is a mandatory order to evacuate and urge them to pack up. In the United States, however, mandatory evacuation does not mean mandatory. The police cannot make people move. Often they won’t leave their homes even when the police ask for Social Security numbers in case they need to later identify the bodies.

In Cuba, mandatory is mandatory. And an actual mandatory evacuation in the face of a hurricane does wonders for keeping casualties down. You can’t win a battle with the wind. #


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