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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2009

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Fleeing from the Hurricane’s Wrath: Evacuation and the Two Americas

The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season was another one for the record books. In addition to its firsts, the season tied with 2003 for fourth place in the number of named storms, and fifth for the number of hurricanes in a season, a ranking it shares with seven other seasons but that places it above three-fourths of the 64 years for which such statistics have been kept. Sixteen named storms gathered over the Atlantic last year, eight of which became hurricanes; five of those were classified as major hurricanes (category 3 strength or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale). The 2008 season was the only season in recorded history in which six consecutive tropical cyclones made landfall on the U.S. mainland (Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike).

Residents in coastal areas from North Carolina to Texas temporarily fled the coast during four of the storms. Authorities in Louisiana and Texas ordered major evacuations for Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which made landfall within 12 days of each other; altogether, nearly 3 million people left their homes in advance of the two storms.

Nothing speaks more to improvements in evacuation management than repeat experience. The gross mismanagement in protecting lives and public safety that emerged during the 2005 hurricane season will likely remain infamous for some time, largely due to the response to Hurricane Katrina, although the reactions to Rita, which prompted massive traffic jams as it approached the Texas-Louisiana border a month later, and Wilma, which left many Floridians without power or emergency supplies for several days, offered tremendous room for improvement. How much better did Louisiana and Texas fare during 2008 in getting people out of harm’s way, especially the poor, sick, disabled, and elderly—the most vulnerable populations?

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