Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg’s Evacuation - Panicky, Politic or Prudent?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered New York City’s first-ever mandatory evacuation to take place by 5 pm Saturday. More than 370,000 people were told to leave low-lying areas in “Zone A” of the City’s evacuation map, including:
- Battery Park City, Manhattan
- Coney Island and Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn
- Far Rockaway and Beach Channel, Queens
- South Beach and Midland Beach, Staten Island.

After the deadline on Saturday, the Mayor said that Hurricane Irene had reached the city. “The time for evacuation is over. Everyone should now go inside.”

By 2 am Sunday, the National Weather Service was predicting that Hurricane Irene would most likely hit land to the east of New York City and would be downgraded to a tropical storm. (See map.)


So - did the Mayor overreact in ordering an evacuation of so many people?

Here are seven points to consider:

1. The Mayor had no way to know for sure where or how hard the hurricane would hit or exactly where. The chances were good that it would slam into NYC.

2. He was setting an example for other officials in New York State and in other states by preparing for the worst.

3. The Mayor surely did not want a repeat of the charge of inadequate preparation that followed the December 2010 snow storm.

4. Hurricanes are rare enough in the NYC latitude that the Mayor could realistically expect never to have to declare another such emergency during the remainder of his administration. The only five major hurricanes (maximum winds of 111 mph or higher, i.e., Category 3, 4 or 5) to threaten New York State since 1900 were the Long Island Express hurricane of September 1938, the post-D-Day hurricane of September 1944, Carol in August 1954, Donna in September 1960 and Gloria in September 1985. Two other hurricanes were Category 1 in New York State – Agnes in June 1972 and Belle in August 1976. Some of these hurricanes didn’t come within 75 miles of NYC. Since 1851, only five have come that close.

5. Even when wind speeds are down below the 74 mph Category 1 level, the possibility that tornadoes could emerge is ever-present. A tornado watch was announced for Sunday morning. Based on the Saffir/Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale (see Table 1 in source).

6. The Hurricane Evacuation Map is impressive. The Mayor is surely proud of this emergency planning tool. Irene is an opportunity for him to test it. An evacuation drill would get nowhere. The threat of a hurricane is a good opportunity to try out the system.

7. Above all, the threat of flooding is real regardless of wind speed. The high precipitation expected in NYC means that a flood watch continues until noon on Sunday.

I think the Mayor did the right thing. To generate information that might be useful for preparing for the next threat of a natural disaster, the Mayor should report fully and soon on the extent of compliance with the evacuation order. We need to know what the challenges are for people to evacuate and how these challenges might be met.