Why the ‘tough love’ on Hurricane Matthew evacuation?

in Apolitical by

Editor’s note: CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” She is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. As widely reported, on Friday Kayyem is meeting with Hillary Clinton to discuss homeland security issues. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

With Hurricane Matthew, there is no messing around. The warnings are clear — evacuate if you are in an area where the powerful storm is heading.

The language from first responders, mayors, and the governors in impacted states is not wrapped in bows and ribbons. If you stay, you are on your own. This hurricane is serious and strong and the lessons learned from previous tragedies are guiding a lot of the activity before the storm makes landfall.

In short, let me be the first to say it. You don’t want your last words to be, “I’m such an idiot.”

Why all this tough love talk from officials? Mostly it’s based on years of training and assessing past mistakes. First, these evacuations are not mandatory. In other words, you will not be forced out — but they also are not just “voluntary.”

What could that possibly mean? It means officials are not suggesting you leave — they are strongly urging you to do so. If you do not you are on your own and, after a certain period of time, first responders will not answer your calls for help.

It is a tough rule, but it is the only way to protect first responders and to make it clear to any members of the public that may want to stay that there will be consequences for your decision.

If you are staying put and putting what happens into your faith’s hands, let me speak on behalf of your faith: he/she wants you to evacuate.

Second, the lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina are guiding the planning and pacing of the evacuation orders. In New Orleans, the mayor waited way too long, so that citizens were not able to adapt to changes in the hurricane’s trajectory.

The orders were also announced in a way that made it seem that the city had alternative plans for those who stuck around.

Consequently a lot of people stayed and, when their houses flooded, they showed up at places like the convention center and the Superdome. Those places became the scenes of tragedies themselves, with no capacity to handle the numbers of displaced people and no sheltering or feeding strategies.

Officials now know to make it clear that there may be no back-up plan. If there is, it may not be made available for days to come.

We also are seeing the deployment of significant federal resources well before landfall. During Katrina, based on longstanding principles and training, the Federal Emergency Management Agency waited until the storm hit to deploy resources.

That is no longer the case. FEMA leaders have deployed assets to the states already and have coordinators stationed in local and state emergency management agencies. They are ready to call upon the full array of federal agencies to assist if need be. Lean in? You bet.

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Finally, many of the demands for a full evacuation are aimed at those staying put. They are making a conscious decision and it is, in the end, a selfish one.

There are likely many in the community — as we have seen in other disasters — who do not have such flexibility. The poor, the elderly, and the infirm need the limited first responder resources to be spent on them, not on those merely choosing to stay.

The storm’s trajectory may change, for the better or for the worse. Storm surges will impact areas that would have never anticipated flooding. The storm could shift up towards the New England area. We simply don’t know yet.

But what we do know is that these are times when we need to have confidence that government works. The government is asking, actually demanding, that we understand that the best way to make it work — the best way to save lives — is to accept that it will not be there to help.

Tough love? You bet. It’s a lesson learned the hard way.