State and local officials in Florida are catching three kinds of hell for not issuing evacuation orders earlier last week in advance of Hurricane Ian. The buck has to stop somewhere, I suppose, but I’ve got a slightly different take on where that particular responsibility lies. As much as I want to jump aboard the smack Ron DeSantis around train, I’m just not there.
Let’s say for purposes of argument that I’m a resident of Sanibel Island. It’s late September and a large hurricane is gathering strength in in the Caribbean. About the time it has taken a bite out of Cuba and starts tracking towards the west coast of Florida, I’m paying very focused attention and going through my own checklist of what needs to happen before I get the hell out of Dodge. When I’ve completed my personal risk assessment, knowing full well that I’m on a barrier island, there’s limited accessibility under the best conditions, and that the big one could cut off communications, water, electricity, and access to pretty much all modern services. At some point in assessing that reality, I’m going to make the decision to flee or ride it out.
It’s the same thing I do on a different scale when there’s snow falling on a weekday. I know that both routes from the outside world to my little homestead here involve negotiating both up and down hills that tend to ice over and get treacherous after a few inches of snow. Even with 4-wheel drive getting in or out can get a little problematic – more often than not because of other area residents who have already tried and failed to negotiate those trouble spots. That’s why I make my own decision about whether it’s safe to go to the office, whether I need to leave early to head home, or whether it needs to be a working from home kind of day. Waiting around for the bureaucracy to make an official decision just means conditions will already be shit by the time I get on the road, so I take the decision into my own hands – because no one is more concerned about me than I am myself.
The problem we run into is a really an issue of what we mean by “mandatory” evacuation. It’s hard to imagine (or expect) that even in the face of an incredibly destructive hurricane your state or local government is going to walk into your house, physically restrain you, and haul you out of your home against your will. They’ll certainly advise. They’ll caution. They may even warn, but ultimately the go/no-go decision is on your own head. The “I didn’t know it was going to be so bad” excuse only goes so far. Even here in north eastern Maryland plenty of reports were cutting through the static about Ian and all the potential damage he carried along. Living on a barrier island in south Florida during hurricane seasons kind puts a lot of the onus on each individual to have a bit of heightened awareness.
Sure, you’ll tell me that some people had no choice. In every natural disaster there’s always some subset of the impacted population that can’t afford to evacuate, or don’t have a car, or have some other extenuating circumstance. Those don’t seem to be the ones raising three kinds of hell during television interviews or in the print media. Then again, there’s a world of difference between “can’t” evacuate and “won’t” evacuate. For the former, it’s a tragedy. For the latter, it feels a lot more like a case of should’ve known better.