Summer is the season of wildfires, severe thunderstorms, and hurricanes. Just this week, the town of Lytton was hit with a record-breaking heatwave that helped spark an instantaneous blaze which consumed 90% of the town in just 15 minutes.
“People basically just grabbed their pets, grabbed their keys and got into their car and fled,” said Jan Polderman, the mayor of Lytton. “[I was] lucky to get out with my own life.”
“There won’t be much left of Lytton,” he said. “The fire was everywhere.”
As much as we’d like to hope we will never experience a natural disaster, it is a real possibility — especially during this time of year.
The good news is that we generally have time to prepare before one of these threats affects us. People usually have days before a hurricane and hours before a wildfire. With severe thunderstorms, we typically have time to find shelter because meteorologists and public officials send out warnings.
For those of us who take preparedness seriously, we understand the need to pay attention to these types of warnings and prepare to evacuate ahead of time. Even so, there are flaws in the country’s current disaster alert systems. That’s why it is paramount to have an evacuation plan ready before one of these threats is on the horizon. If you are prepared for an evacuation ahead of time, you won’t have to rush to grab everything and beat the traffic out of town.
Understanding the steps to evacuation where you live will save you a headache — and possibly your life — should the time come.
The Problem with the Current Public Warning System
Technology has evolved, so you would think it would be easier to notify people about potential evacuations. But there is still a significant gap between those who receive alerts and those who do not.
According to Dennis Mileti, a nationally recognized expert on disaster preparedness, “A half century ago, before 24-hour cable news networks or the internet, the three main television broadcast stations could be counted on to issue standard emergency messages to the entire U.S. population. Now, people in the path of natural disasters typically get alerts from a patchwork of state and local agencies, using different platforms and messaging systems, often manned by part-time employees.”
A lack of consistency makes evacuation messaging confusing and harmful. There are multiple stories of fatalities that resulted from failed evacuation warnings. For example, in 2017, 17 residents in Sonoma County, California failed to receive an evacuation notice of a wildfire because the authorities delayed evacuations due to traffic concerns. These 17 people lost their lives.
In another sad instance, more than 150 people died in a tornado in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. It was discovered they were only given a five-minute warning to take shelter.
Moreover, the language used to announce evacuations confuses people. Is it voluntary or mandatory? Do they have a choice? Plus, there are numerous types of warnings. There are different evacuation levels for wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes. For example, wildfires use a three-level system; earthquakes have a five-level system; and hurricanes use advisories, watches, and warnings.
In addition, when people have lived through multiple warnings without experiencing an event, they tend to dismiss the possibility. They’ll think, “Oh, it’s just another flash flood warning.” Scientists and meteorologists want to change this by using simpler and more direct messaging. Pew Charitable Trusts explains, “The National Weather Service will change flash flood warnings to specifically mention if the threat is ‘considerable’ or ‘catastrophic,’ […] The ‘considerable’ flooding category calls for ‘urgent action’ by residents and local authorities ‘to preserve lives and property,’ while the ‘catastrophic’ category means waters are ‘rising to levels rarely, if ever, seen’ and will ‘threaten lives and cause disastrous damage.’”
Don’t Fall Victim to Response Fatigue
There’s another problem when it comes to evacuation messaging. People stop listening to the warnings. This is known as response fatigue. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, “In March, 800 miles away in Lee County, Alabama, 23 people ranging in age from 6 to 93 were killed in a 170 mph tornado — despite an evacuation warning by local authorities just like ones that many residents had heeded in previous storms this year.”
Scientists believe the large number of weather alerts on the television and cell phones “wears down people’s sense of urgency.” They dismiss alerts because no danger arose last time or the time before that. Even if you have never lived through a natural disaster, it is critical to take heed of threats and emergency messaging.
[Related Read: Weather Spotting: Spot a Natural Disaster Before It Hits]
Simplifying the Language Surrounding Warnings
When it comes to emergency messaging, officials agree that something needs to be done to make people take warnings and evacuation notices seriously. One strategy is to use simple, direct warnings, and to send fewer emergency alerts. A couple years ago, The National Weather Service started implementing this plan. They cut back and provided simple messages that focused on potential damage, such as “people and animals outdoors will be severely injured by an approaching severe hailstorm.”
A 2021 press release from the National Weather Service announced, “NWS will replace its ‘Advisory’ and ‘Special Weather Statement’ headlines with plain language headlines that more clearly describe weather or water hazards. […] Research showed that a large majority of the public and some partners misunderstand the meaning of ‘Advisory’ and confuse it with ‘Watch’. The new paradigm will better support emergency managers, who need plain language headlines to support clear communication, along with messages in a bulleted, easy-to-read format.”
Simplifying the Steps to Evacuation
Likewise, there has been a significant amount of confusion over evacuation orders. As a result, officials have started implementing a simple, direct three-level system. This system makes it easy for citizens to understand threats and know when the time has come to evacuate.
LEVEL ONE: Get Ready
We should all be Level One ready all the time. This is standard emergency preparedness. It includes having an emergency go-bag ready and an emergency communication plan for your family members. It also means signing up for NWS, state, and local emergency alerts.
[Related Read: Grab and Go Emergency Evacuations Must-Haves]
LEVEL TWO: Be Set
During Level Two, you are continuing to monitor the situation, but you are set and ready to go. At this point evacuation is imminent, but you still have some time before you have to run. You may even choose to go ahead and evacuate at this point depending on what you are seeing and hearing.
LEVEL THREE: Go!
At Level Three, it means you are in serious danger and need to evacuate as quickly as possible. At this point, you do not have time to pack any more items. You must leave immediately.
Unfortunately, many people will still wait until Level Three without realizing the dangers of staying behind. Scientific America explains, “The decision to evacuate in the face of a single hazard, whether wildfire or hurricane, is difficult. Sheltering in place can mean life-threatening conditions, prolonged power outages and disrupted access to critical facilities. Evacuating means leaving behind one’s house and possibly animals to an uncertain fate.”
It is wise to consider what happens in the days following a disaster when making the decision to stay or go. Whether you live in a flood zone, hurricane area, or wildfire territory, it is critical to be evacuation ready. Always have a go-bag on hand and a plan for your family.
Be aware and level-one safe, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply