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Editor's Note: Dorian’s Dilemma, Or How Not To Do A Hurricane Evacuation

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NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER
  • National Hurricane Center

THE LESSONS of Hurricane Dorian, thankfully, have more to do with protocol for Savannah than with actual damage.

We have the luxury of dissecting this now, because we aren’t rebuilding from scratch, as the Bahamas are, and as so many hurricane victims have before them.

That said, this experience brought home the core dilemma involved with evacuation, both from the standpoints of evacuees as well as of government agencies.

WHO’S ON FIRST: How do we board airplanes? By first letting on those with small children, those with some kind of mobility issue, and active duty military.

We should do something similar with hurricane evacuations.

A truly effective and compassionate evacuation protocol would go something like this:

• Those in low-lying coastal areas prone to storm surge go first.

• Then the elderly, the infirm, and those with mobility issues — anyone who might need more time and care to evacuate.

• Families of first responders, so that first responders can come back to work knowing their families are safe.

• Then everyone else who needs to go.

It might make political sense for several reasons to issue large-scale mandatory evacuations. But it doesn’t make real-world sense to throw several counties’ populations onto the roads simultaneously— as Ga. Gov. Brian Kemp did —when we now have access to such amazingly accurate meteorological techniques.

What he should have done was evacuate the coastal counties in staggered format, south to north. Then Chatham County’s Zone A (Tybee and islands east of the Truman). Then those who need extra time. Then if needed, Zone B (between the Truman and I-95).

But instead, a hasty blanket decision was made in Atlanta, with seemingly little practical local geographic knowledge.

Some of the political calculation likely had to do with not wanting to let yet another Governor of South Carolina completely embarrass Georgia leaders in hurricane prep – this time in the person of S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, in the footsteps of Nikki Haley before him.

At this point, it’s become a race among coastal governors to see who can pull the trigger first on mandatory evacuations.

In this case the situation was almost ludicrous, with Dorian nowhere near Georgia when Kemp gave the order.

It’s easy to forget that the whole concept of mass hurricane evacuation is fairly new.

The evacuation for Hurricane Floyd, 20 years ago, was the first truly large-scale, government-organized hurricane evacuation in U.S. history. At the time it was literally the largest peacetime migration of people in the modern era.

We learned some lessons from Floyd – the idea to contraflow I-16 Eastbound is a direct result of those nightmarish 10 hour-plus drives to Macon back in 1999 — but other lessons not so much.

THE EVACUEE’S DILEMMA: “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” is a famous thought exercise in which you’re an inmate kept separately from two other inmates, all accused of the same crime.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma posits that your best move isn’t to hold out for total freedom, but to be the first to rat out the other inmates, make a deal with the cops, and get a lesser sentence than the others.

Same with hurricanes. The people who gamble and win on staying behind get the advantage in being able to return to their lives and their jobs first — even if there’s a bunch of wreckage and no power.

The others are often told they have to wait for days before they’ll be allowed back in the county, as was the case with Hurricane Matthew evacuees in 2016.

With Dorian, the vast majority of local residents defied Gov. Kemp’s order. I did an informal Facebook poll, and most everyone said at least 75 percent of their neighborhoods stayed — and usually more.

I feel certain that much of this skepticism can be traced directly to 2016 and Hurricane Matthew.

Evacuees were told they’d have to wait nearly a week to come back home, while at the same time local powers-that-be were literally telling tourists on social media that “Savannah Is Open For Business.”

Tourists got into Savannah before evacuees! A lot of people never forgot that.

CURFEW OR HOUSE ARREST? Not only did the early evacuation cost the local economy millions, the City of Savannah curfew — which began days before Dorian’s first breeze was felt — added another layer of financial distress.

Ostensibly intended to protect the homes of evacuees from looters, there were far too few evacuees to need a curfew at all.

It amounted to house arrest.

It was absurd.

Restaurants and bars had to shut their doors and send staff home at 9 p.m. on gorgeous, perfect nights.

I understand that the Savannah Police Department is understaffed, perhaps critically so. But let’s face it — looting has never been a major problem here.

Are they so understaffed that they can’t handle a potential looting call or two? That should be the red flag right there.

‘IT FELT LIKE WE GOT OUR CITY BACK.’ On the flipside, the evacuation had a clear and noticeable impact on the Historic District, nowadays largely devoid of permanent full-time residents, hurricane or no hurricane.

As Airbnbs and airlines cancelled service due to the mandatory evacuation, downtown became an immediate ghost town — especially by comparison to the Starland area to the south, which was quite active (before 9 p.m., anyway).

Many locals shared an almost identical response: “It feels like downtown used to feel, before the tourists took over.”

The nostalgia was short and bittersweet. Just like that, by Saturday everything was back to the new normal, with tourists meandering around the squares and the Congress Street bars bumping ‘til the wee hours.

And now we await the next depression to form and come our way from the other side of the Atlantic.

cs
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