Florida offers lessons on hurricane shelters, evacuation

 

No one was prepared for Hurricane Harvey.

The storm developed faster and more intensely than any forecaster or emergency official ever anticipated. It hit the Texas mid-coast with a ferocity not seen since Carla almost six decades ago.

While acknowledging this surprise, we must learn critical lessons now and act upon them soon before we become complacent again. Even though hurricanes are unpredictable, we can better prepare before the next major storm arrives.

This discussion begins with surviving the storm. Starting with individual preparation and extending to the local, state and federal levels, we need to look at what other steps we can take to be safer.

Individually, people need to re-evaluate their homes to be sure they are as safe as they can be from wind and flood dangers. Along with stocking an emergency kit, people need to review their personal shelter and evacuation plans before every hurricane season.

Local, state and federal officials can do much more, too. Any disaster plan needs to start by considering the most vulnerable in the community — the poor, the disabled, the elderly and the frail. What will happen to them when a mandatory evacuation order is given only 24 hours before a storm? Where will they go, and how will we get them there?

By this measure, Victoria, the Crossroads and Texas failed miserably. The most vulnerable were left to mainly fend for themselves.

Only through the grace of God did the Crossroads not suffer more casualties. If the forecast had held true and Harvey had unleashed more than 40 inches of rain on the Victoria area, dozens of people would have died. Instead, those deaths occurred in Houston, where many people also lacked any safe haven.

For a better model of how to prepare for a hurricane, Texans should look to Florida, where officials decided after Hurricane Andrew devastated the state in 1992 that they had to rethink how they prepare for major storms. Since then, other states, including Virginia and North Carolina, also have taken steps to strengthen their building codes, bury power lines and revamp their evacuation and sheltering plans.

"You need to start your plan thinking about the family who has the hardest time getting out of here," said Dawn Brantley, sheltering coordinator for Virginia's Department of Emergency Management.

In Florida before Hurricane Irma, state officials issued early and frequent warnings urging residents to either evacuate or go to designated shelters nearby. If people couldn't do either, they were urged to call 211 to arrange public transportation.

Although Irma gave Florida more time to brace for impact, the state also has spent the past two decades getting ready. A critical difference in Florida's plan is the investment in local and regional shelters.

Floridians realize it is unrealistic to evacuate almost 21 million people in a few days before a hurricane. They decided they had to identify and invest in public buildings such as schools, community centers and churches that could be used as temporary safe havens for riding out a storm. They even have shelters located along evacuation routes in case people have trouble on the road out.

Before we are staring into the face of another natural disaster, Texans need to set aside our spirit of independence. Proper planning saves lives.

The lessons of Harvey should prompt a shift in thinking at every level from the individual to the federal government. A collective effort can harden our ability to withstand and recover more quickly from a storm. This is a wise investment that can be done prudently and save money and lives in the long run.

The next major hurricane may come next week — or it may not hit for another 60 years. If we're lucky, it will be the latter.

But we can't count on luck. We can't become complacent. We must act on the lessons learned from Harvey and invest in making our communities safer and more resilient.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.

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