Tales of Irene: Did we over react?

August 27, 2011 1100 hrs EDT (Maryland)

I have been watching Irene with interest, both as a resident of the east coast and as an emergency management practitioner.  I have been impressed with the planning and preparation so far, surprised by some of the doom and gloom, and now listening to those that think that everyone overreacted. So, I am prompted to impose my opinions on my readers once again...

The short answer to the question of overreactions is, IMHO, that it was not overreacting based on what the emergency managers had in the way of a forecast.  Hurricanes are unique, and preparedness officials are blessed, in that there is a lot of warning with tropical systems - almost too much it seems. The problem is there is not as much certainly as we would like. Forecast tracks change all the time and forecast strength is also seldom correct. But you need to work with what you have.

Evacuations are a tool to save lives. Getting people out of the impact zone is a no-brainier but when and how many is the tough decision facing emergency managers.  It takes a long time to evacuate resorts and metropolitan areas.  If you pull the trigger too fast (and the threat does not play out) you may have caused some unnecessary disruption to business and vacations. If you pull the trigger too late, you might put more people in harm's way, causing huge traffic jams and more suffering.  The forecast was dire and the track was a worst case scenario; so, emergency managers had to weigh these factors and that is what lead to evacuations from the OBX up to New England. 

Too Much Hype?
Almost everyone dislikes the hyperbole that politicians and newscasters seem to enjoy so much. I personally wish there was more of a "just the facts" approach to public information.  I understand that it is a tough job to get people to pay attention to warnings and to react to government advice, so a little hype is understandable. You need to do something to get people's attention, denial and inertia are normal and a lot of people do not listen but the over-the-top hype seems to have a negative effect on many.

My pet peeve and dismay is reserved for the the weatherman on the beach, or in the street, watching the destruction. There they stand, crouched down against the wind, dodging flying debris, etc., all while warning everyone to stay inside!  The hypocrisy is unbelievable! They set a bad example for everyone. If they can be on the beach why can't we?

Making Tough Decisions
With the storm weakening and the damage appearing to be minor (at this hour), I am sure that people are wondering if it was worth shutting down the entire eastern seaboard for this so called "storm of the century".  I applaud the emergency managers and politicians for making the tough decisions and announcing them far enough in advance to work.  The evacuations that I saw carried out went very smoothly. Ocean City and the State deployed  buses which came down and fetched the international student workers, who do not have cars normally, and took them up to Baltimore to stay in a University. That was a good plan and well executed. It appears to have gone off without a hitch.

Irene impacts Surf Beach, North Carolina (Rick Paxton photo)

I was faced with a personal evacuation "decision dilemma" myself as I was enjoying some time at the beach. I immediately started weighing my options when the forecast track got close to my location. It would be easy to move in the deck furniture and leave. Part of me wanted to stay as I enjoy a good storm. I grew up at the beach and never evacuated before. As a fire fighter I went out and ran calls in storms and I must say I found it invigorating. However, with family and pets to think about, and having no first responder role to play, I decided to leave and then went to work trying to talk my family members who live there into leaving.  

I left early and had no traffic. As soon as I got home the evacuation orders started so I would have needed to leave anyway.  As for my family, and other "locals" I know, none of them wanted to go and many of them stayed.  They wanted to watch over their property; even after evacuations were ordered and it was announced that water and sewer would be shut off. I hope that they all make out alright and I am watching closely to see how bad they get it.

Lessons to Learn
As with any disaster, or near disaster, there are lessons to learn. We will be watching for after action reviews and recommendations.  I hope that no one thinks this was a "crying wolf" situation. When the next one comes, the threat may be worse and the issues will be the same.  Bottom line, have a plan, be prepared, and remember it is better to be safe than sorry.

Looking forward to getting back to the beach to see if the roof is still on the condo!



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