While Hurricane Irma was making its way through the Caribbean as a Category 5 storm, the National Hurricane Center predicted that it would veer north before reaching Florida; then that it would veer north a little later, skirting Florida’s Atlantic coast and bringing devastation; then that it would veer north still later, plowing right into Miami and then working its devastating way north; then that it would veer north later yet, skirting the Gulf coast and spreading devastation all along it.
These predictions led to mandatory evacuation orders for 6.5 million Floridians (nearly a third of the population)—affecting all of the keys, the coastal areas of Monroe, Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties in southeast Florida and other counties farther north, and the coastal areas of the Gulf coast as well, plus more. Mandatory evacuation orders come with a warning: if you stay, fire departments, first responders, police, etc., won’t respond to your calls for help.
When Irma finally did hit Florida, it did so east of the last forecasts but west of the earlier ones. It first crossed the keys between Key West and Big Pine Key, then made landfall around Ft. Myers, then traveled up the peninsula over land instead of over sea, thus rapidly weakening for lack of the fuel it would have received from the warm Gulf waters. Because of that, it did far less damage than expected (which is not to take lightly the damage it did cause).
Millions who evacuated didn’t need to. But, through no fault of their own (they were just obeying government orders), those who didn’t need to evacuate added to the risk for those who did. Highways were jammed northbound for days before the storm; then they were jammed southbound for days after it. My son and his family evacuated from their home in a low-lying area of Tampa to stay with friends in Tennessee. The normally 8-hour drive took 15 hours—each direction. As it turned out, their home suffered no damage. They’d have been safe—and saved hundreds of dollars in travel costs—had they stayed. You can multiply their story by hundreds of thousands.
Thousands of drivers ran out of fuel because of the traffic jams. Had Irma overtaken them on the highways, many would have been in far greater danger than had they stayed in their homes.
By God’s mercy, that didn’t happen much with Irma. But it did with Hurricane Charley, in 2004. Tom Mullen wrote of his own experience in Charley:
I relocated to Tampa, FL in 2004 for a job opportunity. I moved into my apartment on Saturday, July 31 and started work the following Monday. One week later, the local news was dominated by Hurricane Charley, which was predicted to be the first hurricane to directly hit Tampa since 1921. Sound familiar?
I was told I was in a mandatory evacuation area, meaning 911 calls might not be answered for anyone who refused to leave. Nevertheless, most of my new, local friends told me to ignore the order. “They always say that,” I was told. “It always ends up being a lot of rain, nothing more.”
My well-meaning local government sent me directly into the path of the storm.
Something inside told me they were right. Still, I was new and although I never really feared for my life, I had recurring visions of local first responders pulling me out of the rubble as the media ridiculed the “Yankee who couldn’t follow simple instructions.” So, I played it safe and booked a hotel in Orlando.
On August 13, the hurricane turned right and made landfall in Port Charlotte, about 100 miles south of Tampa. It was a Category 4 when it hit, meaning winds of over 150 mph. It then made a beeline for—you guessed it—Orlando.
It hit the hotel I was staying in that evening as a Category 2, with winds about 106 mph. I watched out my window as the palm trees first bent all the way over in one direction, then straightened up for a while, then bent all the way over in the other direction as the southern end of the storm passed through.
Yes, my well-meaning local government sent me directly into the path of the storm. It was very impressive to watch, but, needless to say, I never evacuated again. After 2005, we had relatively mild hurricane seasons until I moved back to Western New York in 2014.
In “Evacuation and the Danger of Mindless Obedience,” on the blog of the Foundation for Economic Education, Mullen then makes the case against government-mandated evacuations as storms approach. He doesn’t contest the importance of the forecasts government agencies like the National Hurricane Center make as to where hurricanes are headed, how strong their winds will be, or how much rain they’ll drop. (Forecasts are more useful, though, when there are competing forecasts by competing institutions, public and private.) What he contests is government’s making evacuation decisions for people who ought to be free to make those decisions for themselves.
Observing that only two main highways lead north out of Florida (I-95 and I-75), he pondered:
Imagine if everyone ordered to evacuate had cooperated and a dangerous hurricane hit one of those highways. The death toll could have been an order of magnitude larger than it was. We know this from experience. Just twelve years ago, 2.5 million people attempted to evacuate Houston before Hurricane Rita made landfall. In total, some 130 people died in that evacuation, more than have ever perished in a hurricane in the state’s history, with the exception of the 1900 Galveston storm. Of those deaths, about half occurred before the storm hit Texas (emphasis added).
Mullen then drew a lesson:
What actually happened over the weekend in Florida felt like déjà vu: the hurricane was originally predicted to hit Miami and travel up the Atlantic coast, but the storm shifted westward and headed directly for Tampa, where many people had evacuated to. I know just how the evacuees felt.
None of this is to say it is never wise to evacuate before a hurricane or other anticipated disaster. But the record is pretty clear on one thing. Whenever the government has hundreds of thousands or millions of people mobilized and traveling down the same road, it’s always best to be somewhere else. True, it’s worse when said people are armed and dressed in identical clothing, but even well-intentioned government edicts rarely turn out well.
Deciding how to prepare for a major storm, including whether or not to evacuate, is best left to the individual.
One also has to wonder how different things might be if emergency services were provided by the private market, instead of by government monopoly. Would all competing emergency service firms make the same recommendations? Would they not stop to consider the liability implications of sending millions of customers onto unprotected highways, under the threat of nonservice if they didn’t comply?
Good question. With sovereign immunity, governments face little ill consequence if they make a mistake ordering an evacuation. This means they’re prone to order more evacuations than necessary. If the evacuated area gets hit hard, they get credit for “saving” the evacuees. If it doesn’t, they can always say, “Better safe than sorry.” But as Mullen found out when he evacuated Tampa only to find himself right in Charley’s path, needless evacuation can make people less safe and more sorry.
A question worth pondering: Do we need less of Big Brother and more of personal responsibility?