Hurricane Irma Evacuations: What Will Florida Do Differently Next Time? [Opinion]

Hurricane Irma was one of the worst storms in Florida’s long history of hurricanes. Millions evacuated the state of Florida. Most drove north, many as far as Virginia, perhaps further. Charlotte, North Carolina’s hotels filled with guests and their pets from Florida.

Florida’s two major highways were inundated with traffic during the Hurricane Irma evacuations. Gas stations along the path ran out of fuel as Irma closed in. Weather forecasts called for winds of up to 185 mph, according to Vox.

The winds of Hurricane Irma created a sense of urgency, as the residents left behind tried to find a shelter with vacancies. A record 72,000 Florida residents took shelter from the storm according to NBC. As shelters filled up, other potential spaces were sought out, many Florida schools were opened as shelters.

Hurricane Irma evacuations were unprecedented, and despite many glitches, lives were saved due to the teamwork of various city, county, state, and federal workers who struggled with a herculean task.

Now, Florida, still far from finished with the ordeal of rebuilding, looks at what else could have been done. With the benefit of hindsight, officials in Miami and throughout Florida are examining the Hurricane Irma evacuation.

Irma was a massive hurricane and it tested the evacuation policies to the max. What worked and what didn’t? How can Florida and other states be better prepared next time?

Miami-Dade School Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the commissioners Miami Florida needed to create a better plan for informing the public which shelters were full, and which still had space. Carvalho is quoted in the Miami Herald.

“Streamlining the processes for evacuees is a must. I observed it personally. The process of registration was often onerous, considering the masses of individuals converging on the sites.”

Hurricane Irma evacuees converged on shelters, filling designated spaces quickly. Florida residents faced long lines in the video below, as Hurricane Irma approached.

Miami Mayor Carlos Gimenez told the Miami Herald next time there would be more ice, more staff, more refuges for pets, and more focus on public housing preparations. Apparently, the pet-friendly shelters filled quickly, and eventually, dogs were accepted separately into the pet-friendly shelter, while their owners were placed in other shelters.

Miami Florida’s Mayor Gimenez was disappointed with the staffing of shelters during the Hurricane Irma evacuation.

“We have a cadre of people who are trained. We will be training more. I wasn’t as pleased with the response. For future hurricanes, it will be much more structured. It will be much more militaristic. It will not be ‘Please.’ It will be ordered.”

Miami Florida had a contract with the Red Cross to staff eight shelters during hurricanes, according to the Miami Herald, but when the need increased due to Hurricane Irma’s size and force, the Red Cross could not fill the need Hurricane Irma presented to Miami Florida. Police and other city workers were dispatched to staff the shelter.

Too many Hurricane Irma evacuees sought shelter at Germain Arena
Too many Hurricane Irma evacuees sought shelter at Germain Arena by Gerald Herbert

Hurricane Irma was a wake-up call for what nature can do. In the future, Miami-Dade employees will plan to staff hurricane shelters.

With Hurricane Irma’s wreckage still being sorted out, more storms and hurricanes are coming. Can Florida regroup in time? What needs to be changed? Is there time to change it before the next hurricane?

Miami Florida Commissioner Audrey Edmonson spoke up for the poor of Miami. Were they equally protected and benefited by Hurricane Irma relief efforts?

“My district has poverty. The city of Miami was out there giving out the ice and the water and the food. I had empty hands. I really felt bad that I had empty hands, and to see the lines of people who actually needed these things.”

Hurricane Irma, like most disasters, did not necessarily bring out the best in people, or the systems in place. Reports coming out of Saint Augustine about the alleged treatment of the homeless in shelters were very negative.

Saint Augustine’s homeless were reportedly marked with yellow wristbands, differentiating them from other residents seeking shelter from Hurricane Irma. However, some officials say the wristbands indicated special needs. The homeless were not given cots or blankets while others were, according to NBC News. Gary Usry told NBC he felt “insulted” and “demeaned.”

“We were left on concrete floor overnight. No blanket, no nothing.”

Shelby Hoogendyk and her 17 month-old son Caelan
Shelby Hoogendyk and her 17 month-old son Caelan by Jason Dearen AP Photo

Even families with small children were badly treated at Hurricane Irma shelters according to statements given to NBC News. Shelby Hoogendyk, a wife and mother of a 17-month-old son, says she was treated like a criminal because her family is currently homeless.

“We were treated like we were guilty criminals.”

Kirsten Anderson, of the Southern Legal Counsel, informed NBC it is a violation of federal law to discriminate against people on the basis of economic status in any federal disaster zone.

Hurricane Irma shelters in some areas like Volusia County face allegations they turned away homeless people. Some Florida shelters hurricane sent homeless evacuees away from the middle school shelter for other residents, to the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter on a school bus, thus segregating them. The video below shows homeless people being turned away from a shelter and sent into a bus, in the face of Hurricane Irma.

Homeless assistance worker Robin Williams told NBC she went to a shelter with a group of about 60 homeless people, where they were not given cots, blankets or food. Other Florida Keys residents at a different shelter were given cots, hot meals, and free toiletries. Some homeless people have reportedly been turned away from Hurricane Irma shelters, without being given any other options.

Hurricane Irma revealed some of the best and worst in Florida natives. The evacuation of millions from Florida was a herculean task, and so was the sheltering of tens of thousands more. Still, as Miami Florida considers establishing more pet-friendly shelters, perhaps other areas need to be a bit more people friendly to those less fortunate.


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The Hurricane Irma evacuation was imperfect, and abuses, as well as inadequacies, were revealed. Florida officials seek to learn from their mistakes, and hope, next time will be different.

[Feature Image by David Goldman/AP Images]