Hurricane evacuation decisions should not rest with politicians

Hurricane evacuation decisions should not rest with politicians
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With the height of hurricane season upon us and Harvey, Irma, and perhaps even Jose wreaking havoc on the U.S. coastline, this is an important opportunity to re-evaluate typical emergency response processes, especially who is responsible for making the life-or-death call of whether to issue an evacuation order.

Recently, as Hurricane Harvey cruised toward Houston, the city’s residents received conflicting advice. Texas Governor Greg Abbott stated that Houston residents should “strongly consider evacuating” even if an order “hasn’t been issued by your local official.”

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Meanwhile, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that residents should stay in town, citing concern for the potential for massive gridlock like what occurred before Hurricane Rita in 2005, when more than 100 people perished in the staggering heat and standstill traffic of an evacuation.

Though Harvey provides a recent example, U.S. politicians have long struggled with just such difficult but important decisions. The incredible uncertainty surrounding the path of a hurricane combined with its significant destructive power and increases in the coastal U.S. population mean that mistakes — both false alarm evacuations or unpredicted direct hits on a city — bear significant social and economic consequences.

This is especially true in cities like Miami and New Orleans, where evacuations take more than 72 hours — a period in which a storm’s projected path can easily shift more than 100 miles in either direction. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was heavily criticized for focusing too much on the legal (and business) implications of evacuation rather than the safety of his residents before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 1998, an official ordered the evacuation of the Florida Keys a full three days before the expected arrival of Hurricane Georges, prompting concern by the head of the National Hurricane Center that such an early evacuation could cost the official his job, even though it was the right decision.

We believe these examples illustrate why the decision to order an evacuation is never easy, but it is potentially dangerous when left to a politician. With many local elections looming this November, government officials and their constituents should push to reallocate such decision-making rights to county-level emergency management experts equipped with the necessary knowledge, experience, and political agnosticism to balance the diverse needs of the affected community.

First, understanding the risks and costs of hurricanes requires specific expertise, and most mayors are not in their role long enough to develop that expertise, nor were they likely elected based on their ability to understand probabilities and weather patterns.

Data show that the average mayor of a large (100,000 or more people) city has been in office for around five years. Even in hurricane-prone regions like Florida and South Carolina, how many times has a mayor with five years of experience been asked to really look at the meteorological data on hurricanes and make an informed decision?

Over the past 50 years, there have been typically between 12 and 19 storms affecting the U.S. each decade, meaning that even the most-often-hit regions are only hit infrequently, especially by severe storms. Thus, most people tasked with making this important decision have never done so before and are relatively unlikely to do so again, so any learning generated through experience is liable to be lost between mayoral administrations.

Second, politicians have a strong incentive to make evacuation decisions based not necessarily on the best interests of the entire community, but on the preferences of the key constituencies for their political career. In today’s increasingly polarized landscape, that means playing to 51 percent of the voting population and ignoring everyone else.

But different parts of the population bear different risks. There are inherently two types of errors that decision makers can make — an error of commission (evacuating when the hurricane doesn’t hit a region, a false alarm) and an error of omission (failing to evacuate in a hurricane that ends up hitting a region, as was the case with Hurricane Charley in 2004 that landed in Fort Myers though it was “destined” for Tampa).

Businesses are typically hurt the most by errors of commission, as the lost revenues for evacuations in places like Atlantic City and Miami number in the tens of millions of dollars per day. All things being equal, business owners typically would prefer cities not to be evacuated if the risk is unclear.

Most city residents, however, bear the opposite risk — they risk their own lives if an evacuation isn’t called early enough (e.g., Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans). Thus, politicians who lean on strong support from the local business lobby have an incentive not to issue an evacuation order unless the danger is clear, while other politicians may be over-prone to ordering evacuations. Neither situation is ideal and, importantly, neither accurately reflects the underlying considerations of the entire local population.

By removing the effect of political pressure, the decision to evacuate will better benefit the well-being of the entire community, not just 51 percent of it.                                                        

Removing politics from evacuation decision-making is vital to the safety and vitality of America’s citizens and economy. Allowing local experts to build on their experience, get the process right, and balance the needs of the entire community is imperative to ensure cities are best defended against hurricane wrath.

JP Eggers is associate professor of Management and Organizations and Zur Shapira is the William R. Berkley Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management at the NYU Stern School of Business. They are the authors of “Trade-offs in a Tempest: Stakeholder Influence on Hurricane Evacuation Decisions,” published in Organization Science.