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Why Hurricane Ike's "Certain Death" Warning Failed

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 26, 2008
 
As residents of Galveston, Texas, were allowed to return to the devastated island this week, experts puzzled over why tens of thousands of others had remained during Hurricane Ike—despite the National Weather Service's "certain death" warning.

Among the possible explanations: memories of a chaotic 2005 evacuation, an anti-government attitude, and a false sense of security fueled by TV news and the abundance of hurricane data on the Web.

(See full Hurricane Ike coverage: photos, stories, and videos.)

Avoiding Chaos

Gene Hafele, director of the Houston-Galveston National Weather Service office, said about 500,000 people in and around Galveston were in a mandatory evacuation zone, and only about 300,000 left.

Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, estimated there were about 140,000 people in the smaller, "certain death" zone. About 70 percent of those residents evacuated. That left nearly 40,000 people to contend with the worst of the storm surge.

There is "no one answer" why so many Texas residents ignored the evacuation order, Read said.

Some probably refused to leave because they'd been caught in the chaotic evacuation for Hurricane Rita in 2005, he said.

During that event, roads out of Houston became gridlocked. Officials later estimated that about 90 people died during the 2005 evacuation because of heatstroke, dehydration, and other causes.

Read also said that some of those who refused to leave during Hurricane Ike stayed because they have an intense anti-government attitude. "They think, No one tells me what to do," Read said.

The National Weather Service's Hafele said officials decided to issue the "certain death" evacuation warning because the storm surge from Hurricane Ike would be unlike anything seen on the Texas coast since an unnamed hurricane in 1915.

"People who were living in the storm surge zone had never experienced a surge like this and had no way of knowing how severe this could be," Hafele said.

Hafele said he was puzzled by why some residents of Bolivar Peninsula—a low-lying, more rural community just north of Galveston—defied the evacuation order.

The peninsula took the worst of Ike's storm surge, and dozens of homes and other buildings there simply disappeared after the hurricane (photo: the peninsula before and after Hurricane Ike).

"The people who live on Bolivar understand their vulnerability," Hafele said. "Some have lived out there an unusually long time, and they've experienced a lot of storms. Why some of those people decided not to leave really is beyond me."

False Sense of Security

Jay Baker, a professor of geography at Florida State University in Gainesville, has studied how people respond to hurricane warnings.

The main reason people don't comply with evacuation orders is because they think they will be safe despite the warning to leave, Baker said.

"They think the storm will miss them, or they think they will be safe in their homes even if the storm does hit," Baker said.

There's also the fact that evacuating can be an expensive and very difficult task, and that can prompt people to decide not to leave, Baker said.

In addition, the National Hurricane Center's Read added, live news reports from the ground in Galveston may have given some viewers a false sense of security. "Viewers think, It's OK for the cameraman to stay there, why not me?"

Florida State's Baker said, "I'm not convinced that there's any kind of deep-seated psychological reason. People just make poor judgments. They don't know how bad it can get if they stay."

Billy Wagner is the chief emergency management specialist for Early Alert, a private hurricane warning and emergency management consulting service based in Tampa, Florida.

The availability of so much hurricane information on the Internet may be another reason why some people decide to ignore evacuation orders, Wagner said.

Amateur forecasters don't have the skill and training to evaluate hurricane data and make sound decisions about whether they should evacuate, he added.

The National Hurricane Center, on the other hand, has the "overall picture" of the approaching storm and also is communicating with local officials about whether to issue evacuation orders, he said.

"They need to listen to public officials," Wagner said. "I'm always concerned that too many people think they're tropical meteorologists now and are second-guessing what's taking place."

Read, the National Hurricane Center director, said forecasters will be taking a "cold, hard" look after the hurricane season at hurricane warnings and how people responded to them. The review could prompt changes in how the center issues warnings, he said.

Willie Drye is author of Storm of the Century: the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

HURRICANE BASICS



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