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The science that goes into emergency evacuation orders

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, hearing from Florida residents about their decisions prompted me to wonder, how do authorities make the call over whether, over when to issue an evacuation order? To help answer that, let's bring in former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. We have caught him in Gainesville, Fla. Mr. Fugate, I hope you are surviving the wind and storm down there.

CRAIG FUGATE: Yeah, we didn't get near the damage they're seeing in other parts of the state.

KELLY: Yeah. So walk me through the process. For people who are in parts of the state where the storm has hit or may be about to hit, how do you decide when to tell people you got to go, you got to go now?

FUGATE: Well, it's based upon a lot of work we do outside of hurricane season. The National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA work very closely with states to establish areas that are vulnerable from storm surge. They map out the communities, how many people live there, the road networks and how long it would take for people to get out of those areas when they say it's time to go. They use the term clearance time, but it's really from the time they make a decision to the last car is to safety.

KELLY: Yeah.

FUGATE: And they factor in traffic is going to be bad. They're going to factor in, you know, that this is going to take time and how far people need to go.

KELLY: Yeah.

FUGATE: And so that's what they're doing. They have their tables built based upon their population. You know, some of these small towns, they can evacuate in less than 12 hours. You know, some of our communities, like the Florida Keys, could take two days to evacuate. Each one of these communities have this information that's been provided by FEMA and the Weather Service and Hurricane Center that provide that. So they're watching storms. When they get that information, they know they have to make a decision.

KELLY: How accurate a science is it?

FUGATE: Well, I think there's a tendency - when you see all this data, you think there's a lot of precision. And the reality is we have good basic information about populations, evacuation times, what the roads will do. What we have to also factor in is human behavior. People tend not to want to evacuate at 3 o'clock in the morning. So they do better when they have time, it's daylight. And I think that's one of our challenges, because people are saying, hey, the sun is shining. I don't see any problem. Why should I go now? That's what I think the challenge is, to communicate. In some of our communities, it takes more than a day to evacuate. And if people don't go when that sun is shining, if they wait for the storm to get there, it may be too late.

KELLY: It may be too late. I'm looking county by county in Florida. Some of them - Pasco County, Gulf County, to name a couple - they have mandatory evacuation orders for some residents, voluntary for others. How do you make that call?

FUGATE: Well, they look at what are the likely impacts. So again, these evacuation zones are not just one. They're based upon different levels of storm surge. And parts of the counties have very distinct geographical areas that will flood very easily and don't flood hardly at all. So you just don't want to say everybody's got to go. You want to say, who's at the greatest risk?

KELLY: Yeah.

FUGATE: But the reality is, when I hear the word evacuation, I don't really hear mandatory or voluntary. I hear evacuate to higher ground.

KELLY: Yeah. Yesterday on this program, we heard from one guy, a business owner in St. Petersburg Beach. We caught him as he was filling up sandbags. He said, look, in the past, I have heeded evacuation orders. And when I came back, my neighborhood was fine. It was bone dry. So this time, I'm going to stay put. How do you weigh the risk of crying wolf?

FUGATE: Well, this is the challenge because the area of impact could be hundreds of miles. Yet we know that the greatest impacts will be where that center of circulation crosses for storm surge. And if you wait too long, 'til you're certain, you run out of time. And in many cases, it's - you know, historically, less than 25% of the areas that are put into evacuation orders actually get the devastating damages. But if we got to go earlier, there's going to be less precision in the forecast. If we wait until we have certainty, it will be too late.

KELLY: Have you learned anything from your years in this business in terms of helping people to evacuate? I'm thinking there are plenty of people who are in hurricane-prone areas who may hear an evacuation order and just be stubborn - no, I'm not going. But a lot of people have reasons not to evacuate. Maybe they don't have anywhere to go or they don't have money to finance this or they face language barriers, all kinds of things.

FUGATE: Yeah, this goes back to what we'd do before storms and, again, working with local and state agencies to make sure that there are plans in place for people who don't have transportation. You know, people say, I don't have money for a hotel or motel. Well, we understand that. That's why, you know, we're opening up the public shelters. But I think what we need to understand is it's important that we give them clear information. And I think we sometimes sanitize the term.

Talk about storm surge - most people, if they haven't been through it, have no earthly idea what that means. They think it's like a high tide. The way people die in storm surge is they drown, or they're crushed by debris like cars and boats and other large objects battering their homes. And that's the risk. This isn't about, you know, we're trying to, you know, use all this nice government terminology. It's like, we need to tell people you drown or you're crushed if you're in these areas when the storm hits and you didn't get out in time.

KELLY: I'm sure it's such a fine line, though, between being, as you put it, brutally honest and not wanting to sow panic.

FUGATE: I haven't seen this ever sow panic. I think that's the most overrated risk, that people are afraid we're going to panic people. And quite honestly, I'd like to get some people panicked to get them out of these areas so they don't drown.

KELLY: That is former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate speaking with us from Gainesville, Fla. Thank you, sir.

FUGATE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.