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Public's misperceptions another hurricane hazard

May 24, 2012
BILL KACZOR , Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Floridians often overestimate their ability to withstand a hurricane - and that puts them in potentially serious danger.

Florida State University professor Jay Baker, who has spent almost four decades questioning people about their storm experiences, said one constant over that span is that too many people believe they are safer than they are. They may think the storm won't hit them, or that it won't be as bad as it turns out. Some who live in flood- and surge-prone areas believe their homes are high enough and will be safe.

"Maybe they just need to be more frightened," said Baker, a behavioral geologist. "They need to have more of a gut reaction about what this thing can do to them."

Hurricane season begins June 1 and emergency officials, as always, are worried that if a major storm hits that too many people in the evacuation zones will stay put. Baker says the key to improving the evacuation rate is to better inform the public about what will happen in a direct hit.

"When you ask people 'Why didn't you leave?' the most common reason is they didn't think they needed to," Baker said.

When Hurricane Charley was threatening the Tampa Bay region in 2004, only about half of the residents heeded orders to evacuate from the most vulnerable areas - those susceptible to flooding during even a minimal Category 1 hurricane. Charley, though, veered away and made landfall as a Category 4 storm further south, where the evacuation rate was even lower, Baker said.

Surveys show that people who live in the riskiest areas tend to underestimate the danger while people in less hazardous areas overestimate it. In a survey conducted a few years ago, only 14 percent of Florida residents questioned came within five feet of correctly identifying their home's height above sea level.

"So when they hear the storm surge is going to be, oh, say 15 feet, most people have no idea of the implications of that," Baker said.

A majority also don't know their neighborhood's color-coded evacuation zone although most coastal counties have been publicizing them for decades. The color codes, which differ from county to county, indicate what areas need to be evacuated based on elevation and a storm's predicted strength. Most counties make maps available showing the zones and they are on county websites.

Charlotte County, which took a direct hit from Charley, has placed color-coded evacuation zone markers on stop signs. If residents are unsure of their zones all they have to do is check a nearby intersection to see if an evacuation order applies to their neighborhood.

Baker said local officials need to order evacuations earlier - most people tend to stay put until local notices are issued even after the National Hurricane Center has declared they are in a watch or warning area.

Local officials "have more direct effect on how the public responds than just people seeing the forecast information," Baker said. "You don't see evacuation numbers going up in large numbers until officials issue evacuation notices."

The Florida Division of Emergency Management this year is targeting residents who arrived after the last major hurricane in 2005 and families with children under the age of 17 because surveys show they are less prepared than childless families, said Julie Roberts, the agency's new external affairs director. The messages, though, will be familiar, urging people to "get a plan" before a hurricane strikes and be prepared to survive without government help for at least 72 hours.

Lee County has come out with an app for smart phones to try to reach younger people who don't normally read brochures, attend seminars or get information from traditional broadcast and print media, said John Wilson, the county's public safety director.

Baker, though, said people still overwhelming rely on television for storm information. Real-time surveys conducted in North Carolina and New York by Florida State's Catastrophic Storm Risk Center and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Risk Management Center showed about 65 percent of residents relied mainly on television as Hurricane Irene approached the East Coast.

Fewer than 15 percent each relied mostly on the Internet, radio or friends. It was only about 1 percent for social media.

"It concerns me sometimes that local emergency management is going to neglect some of the more traditional ways of getting the word out and think that if they have a Facebook site and Twitter presence that it's going to reach the majority of people, and it's not," Baker said.

One motivating factor is fear.

In 2006, Florida issued a television and radio public service announcement that featured 911 calls from people begging for help as Hurricane Ivan battered the Pensacola area in 2004. Dispatchers told them it was too dangerous to send anyone to their aid in the middle of the storm.

They were provocative and controversial.

"I don't really subscribe to that," Wilson said. "Just being up front and using simple clear language is better than trying to scare them."

State officials, though, are thinking about bringing back the 911 call announcements, Roberts said.

"While some people said it was a scare tactic, it was definitely a hard-hitting campaign," Roberts said. "But I think it makes people wake up."

 
 

 

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