Hurricane Sandy Reveals That Evacuating Is No Holiday

Waves wash over the sea wall near high tide at Battery Park in New York, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 as Hurricane Sandy approaches
Waves wash over the sea wall near high tide at Battery Park in New York, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012 as Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast. Hurricane Sandy continued on its path Monday, forcing the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

One week after Hurricane Katrina, Rick Santorum, then a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania recommended penalties for New Orleans residents who did not evacuate in advance of the storm. He reasoned that rescue personnel had been put at risk, and therefore consequences should be meted out to those who stayed. Later, Santorum conceded that he was talking about people with cars or means to evacuate, not the poor.

Santorum has not made similar recommendations for the people of means in New York and New Jersey who did not evacuate ahead of Hurricane Sandy and neither, to the best of my knowledge, have others in positions of authority. This may reflect the enlightenment that comes with experience. Many on the east coast have discovered with Sandy -- and one year ago, with Irene -- what New Orleanians already know: Evacuations are expensive and stressful. They are no holiday for the fleeing residents.


Few are fortunate enough to have friends or family living outside the evacuation zone who might host them at no cost. Few have a place to go that does not include a hefty price tag. Lodging is typically needed for a minimum of two nights. Often, by the time a mandatory evacuation is ordered, the less expensive more convenient hotel rooms are already snatched up, necessitating even longer drives to safety. There is the cost of gasoline and food. Factor in lost wages, rents and other kinds of income.


Being a resident of New Orleans who has endured many evacuations, I can assure you that they can be enormously stressful. For starters, hurricanes landfalls are still notoriously difficult to predict. You may be already out the door and trapped in traffic when the radio carries word that the hurricane has made a last-minute wobble and veered off in another direction.

Evacuations are especially stressful for the elderly. In storm after storm, fully lucid old folks choose to 'shelter in place' and ride out dangerous weather events rather than relocate to safety. Adult children pleaded with their parents to leave as Katrina bore down on Louisiana; but many elderly insisted on staying behind and perished in the flood waters after the federal levee system collapsed. We saw a similar thing during Sandy. Most of the victims in Staten Island's Midland Beach area were elderly living alone in modest one-story bungalows close to sea level.

My husband and I grappled first-hand with this phenomenon as Katrina approached. We begged an elderly neighboring couple to evacuate. A World War II veteran and former New Yorker, the husband felt he could handle the storm. "We once had a hurricane on Long Island," he said defiantly. Finally, by literally frightening them, we convinced them to leave, but it took a concerted effort and a distraction from our own preparations as we boarded up the house, packed the car and got ready to flee with our two sons and the family dog.

When to evacuate?

Once the decision is made to evacuate, the next decision is when. The answer can be elusive. Aversion to heavy traffic and delays makes some people evacuate days in advance, but that can bring its own set of problems. For example, my college friend and her husband elected to evacuate with their toddler well before the mandatory evacuation order. They felt super-responsible, but Katrina intensified from a Category 3 storm to a Category 5 after they left. When the levees failed, their single story house took on seven feet of water. Had they evacuated a day later, they could have, at a minimum, loaded valuables and keepsakes into their car.


Evacuations can be deadly. According to disaster geographer Ezra Boyd, more victims died relating to the evacuation and displacement for Hurricane Katrina than from drowning or other direct impacts. Hurricane Rita, a few weeks after Katrina, provided an unforgettably tragic example: a bus transporting nursing home residents out of storm-menaced Houston caught fire due to poor axle lubrication -- 23 passengers died.

Futile waste of time

Evacuations can also be a waste of time that undermines the credibility of the governments or agencies that called for them. Advancing hurricanes can suddenly lose strength or change direction as happened with Hurricane Ivan in Louisiana in 2004. People were stranded for a dozen hours making trips that usually took just two, only to see the storm veer toward Florida. One year later, though too many people stayed behind, New Orleans accomplished the most successful rapid evacuation of a major city in the nation's history. Officials from the Netherlands, a country otherwise in the vanguard of flood disaster response, expressed awe at the efficiency and speed with which New Orleans evacuated a million people, and with only two roads of any size.

The Future

Even the smoothest evacuation experience is a hardship, so evacuating should not be treated as the default option. Hurricane Sandy showed that portions of cities all along the East Coast are truly in danger of storm surge flooding. These communities need rehearsed evacuation plans.

Development plans also need to be re-thought; risks need to be recalculated to reflect not just the financial costs of disaster, but also the inevitable loss of life. This seems not to be happening on Staten Island where despite the devastation and death associated with Sandy, plans are still underway for a waterfront mall and 120,000 square foot hotel.

Storm damaged homes in some areas of coastal New York may be blocked from rebuilding. City officials say current building codes would likely prohibit reconstruction of similar homes. While these folks affected deserve our respect and sensitivity, this nonetheless may be the best alternative both the residents, the state and the country.

But another reality is equally persistent. Folks in the northeast who experienced Hurricane Irene - and one year later, Hurricane Sandy -- will no longer scold New Orleanians who stubbornly insisted on sheltering in place. Evacuations are at best expensive and stressful; worse yet, they are sometimes as deadly as the storm that evacuees seek to escape. Building smarter cities mitigates the need to flee.