Weighing a Decision Whether to Stay or Go

Dimitri Pinckney installs hurricane shutters in advance of Hurricane Matthew on the Isle of Palms, S.C., Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016.

Dimitri Pinckney installs hurricane shutters in advance of Hurricane Matthew on the Isle of Palms, S.C., Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016. Mic Smith / AP Photo

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

As state and local officials urge residents in vulnerable areas to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Matthew, some are deciding to ride it out. And that’s “a headache” for first responders.

Hurricane Matthew churned away from the Caribbean on Wednesday through the Bahamas and toward Florida’s Atlantic coast, as evacuation efforts began ahead of the powerful storm’s expected arrival in the southeastern U.S.

More than 1.5 million Floridians were in evacuation zones, according to the state’s Division of Emergency Management. Thousands of people have left vulnerable areas in South Carolina. Residents were encouraged to evacuate six Georgia counties. And, early Wednesday, ferries shuttled away visitors who were told to vacate a North Carolina barrier island.

But not everyone is heeding official warnings to seek safer ground.

Despite a mandatory evacuation order for the barrier island where Satellite Beach, Florida is located, the city manager there expects many locals will stay put as Hurricane Matthew threatens to batter the area in the coming days with wind, rain and surf.

“I think you’ll probably see about half the residents leave and about half of them stay,” City Manager Courtney Barker said by phone Wednesday afternoon. “That’s usually how it goes.”

The strip of land Satellite Beach occupies is only about 1.4 miles wide. To the east is the Atlantic Ocean, to the west the Indian River and the Florida mainland. With a population of around 10,600 residents, the city is about 15 miles south of Cape Canaveral in Brevard County.

A mandatory evacuation order for barrier islands in Brevard County went into effect at 3 p.m. Wednesday. But Don Walker, the county’s communications director, noted by phone: “We don’t have any way to enforce a mandatory evacuation. We don’t knock on doors.”

Walker said in total an estimated 90,000 people in the county reside on the barrier island where Satellite Beach is located, nearby Merritt Island, or in other areas prone to flooding. Along with them, people living in manufactured and mobile homes have been urged to clear out.

Those who disregard evacuation warnings and decide to remain in their homes during severe weather can cause frustration for authorities.

“It is a headache,” Barker said. “We really wish people would get out of the city.”

A main reason why, she explained, is because if someone gets hurt or needs help during a storm—for instance, if they’re hit and badly wounded by a wind-blown chunk of debris—it could result in dispatching first responders in dangerous conditions.

“We don’t want to drive out in the middle of a hurricane to get to your house,” Barker said. And, if the weather gets too extreme, she added: “At some point, we won’t be able to help.”

Weather models show Matthew moving along Florida’s Atlantic coast on Thursday and Friday.

The storm is fierce. It ravaged Haiti on Tuesday with winds that measured around 145 miles per hour. From there it barreled across eastern Cuba and on to the Bahamas.

At 8 p.m. Wednesday, the Category 3 hurricane was about 360 miles southeast of West Palm Beach, Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center, with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph.

The Hurricane Center noted in a forecast Wednesday that because the storm is expected to travel parallel to the East Coast between Florida and South Carolina, “it becomes very difficult to specify impacts at any one location.” Minor changes to the east or west in the storm’s forecasted path could be the difference between its brunt striking land or staying out at sea.

Although Matthew is not expected to reach South Carolina until around Saturday, officials there issued an evacuation order early. Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday called for about one million residents to begin leaving coastal regions in the state beginning Wednesday afternoon.

South Carolina does not distinguish between mandatory or voluntary evacuations.

On Wednesday, highway lanes were reversed to handle heavy traffic flowing from the state’s coastal areas. And over 200 school buses were sent to help transport people from the Charleston area.

State officials estimated that upwards of 250,000 people had left coastal parts of South Carolina.

“I think when all is said and done, we’re looking at about a half-a-million evacuated,” Haley said during a news conference Wednesday.

Residents in Beaufort County were among those in South Carolina who were told to evacuate from the coast.

Billy Keyserling is the mayor of the city of Beaufort, which has about 13,000 of the county’s roughly 179,000 residents. The city is located about 45 miles northeast of Savannah, Georgia. The Harbor River snakes around Beaufort near where it empties into the Atlantic.

“We’re just hunkered down waiting,” Keyserling said when reached by phone Wednesday.

Around the time of the call the mayor was seeking to gas up his vehicle. He’d been to three stations that were dry. A fourth had fuel.

Keyserling was planning to stay in Beaufort through the storm.

“If I weren’t mayor and I could leave,” he said, “I probably would.”

Asked about other residents’ plans, the mayor replied: “Depends on how long you’ve been around.”

“People who grew up here . . . and went through all the so-called scares are more likely to stay or leave late,” Keyserling added. “They generally just don’t think it’s going to be that bad.”

Up the coast about 400 miles in the barrier island community of Ocracoke, North Carolina, a similar sentiment prevailed, according to Sundae Horn, travel and tourism director for the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association.

“Most of the people I’ve talked to are planning to stay,” she said.

Horn said that if the storm was expected to be a more powerful Category 4 or 5 hurricane when it reached North Carolina, Ocracoke residents might be more inclined to leave the island.

“But there are people here who have never left for any storm ever,” she added. “They feel safer here than if they went to the mainland and had to stay in a hotel.”

Visitors were told to leave Ocracoke beginning at 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning. And Horn said lines for ferries departing the island were long in the morning, but had thinned out by afternoon.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s office announced later in the day that an evacuation order for Ocracoke residents that was set to go into effect Thursday morning had been suspended.

In Satellite Beach, Barker said overall preparations for the storm had been smooth so far.

“It’s gone pretty much as expected,” she said. The city had distributed around 4,000 to 5,000 sandbags. Storm drains were cleared, buildings were boarded up, city records were made safe.

Grocery stores ran low on food at times on Tuesday, she said. But she believed most residents were able to get what they needed.

Barker has been city manager for about three years and grew up in Satellite Beach.

“Hardened and seasoned Floridians, who’ve lived here all their lives, it’s a normal thing for them,” she replied when asked how people there were feeling about Hurricane Matthew. Even so, she added: “I do think people are worried. It’s a very strong storm.”

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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