Local Perspective: Hurricane Matthew

 

By: Minh Phan

“I’m so ridiculously prepared everyone would wanna be at my house. If it gets to cat 3 I’m out. Cat 2 is a breeze.”

Others felt the coverage on Matthew was dramatic and overhyped.

“I don’t think it’s gonna be that bad. Georgia has a reputation of panicking in weather situations.”

Those who expressed their intent to evacuate did so out of extra precaution, playing it safe and leaving in case the storm delivered a heavy blow to the region.


I’ve grown up along the Georgia Coast for most of my life. Ask anyone around, and you’ll know that in terms of tropical impacts, we’ve been rather fortunate here in the Coastal Empire. Folks have a few ideas as to why hurricanes seem to avoid our area like the plague. Some say it’s the location of the Georgia coastline in relation to the rest of the southeast Atlantic. We call it the “Georgia Bight,” and many believe it acts as a safe harbor of sorts because storms often track well to our east. Others think the Gulf Stream has something to do with storms steering clear of our area. Whatever the reason, Georgians haven’t experienced a direct hit since Hurricane David in 1979. But we did have a close call nearly two decades ago.

The last major threat from a hurricane came in 1999, when residents were forced to evacuate from Hurricane Floyd. I was a bright-eyed 7-year-old at the time, in awe of the events unfolding before me. When officials told our city to evacuate, I packed the family van with as many toys and Beanie Babies as I could find. As we pulled out of our driveway, my parents were nervous, wondering if they would ever see our house again.

The journey for our family and many other families westward to a safer inland location proved to be the most miserable drive of our lives. What is normally a 4 hour drive to Atlanta from the coast took over 10. Some sat on Interstate 16 (the main artery out of Savannah) for even longer, and the blazing hot September sun certainly didn’t help. It was a nightmarish ordeal that seemed to be all for naught, as the storm skirted by, leaving the city and county virtually unscathed. Floyd took a last minute turn, eventually making its way up to Eastern North Carolina and sparing our coastline as many storms so often do.  Thousands of residents expressed their frustrations over the entire evacuation process, many vowing to stay the next time “the big one” hit. Fast forward 17 years to 2016, the “big one” came in the form of Matthew.

As I sat in my North Carolina apartment Monday night before the storm’s projected arrival, I told friends and family back at home to keep a close eye on the storm. I moved away to Greenville, NC last August to pursue graduate school at East Carolina University, but my parents still reside in the marshland-surrounded suburban community of Richmond Hill along Georgia’s coast. I decided that week to return home to prepare the family for whatever came our way.

By Tuesday, the Category 4 storm took aim on Haiti and eastern Cuba. With the entire Southeast coast well within the National Hurricane Center’s Forecast Cone, it looked more and more likely that Matthew would pummel the entire Georgia coast with hurricane-force winds and potentially historic storm surge inundation.

nhcmatthewtue

Matthew Forecast, 4 Oct. 2016 – National Hurricane Center

Meteorologists at both the National Weather Service offices in our region (Charleston, SC and Jacksonville, FL) and at Savannah’s local television stations did an excellent job communicating the forecast impacts expected in our area from Matthew. These forecasts were tweaked slightly with every new National Hurricane Center advisory and new batch of forecast models, but the messaging and graphics remained consistent; the biggest threats were expected to be strong damaging winds and flooding from heavy rain and storm surge.

Many friends and family up and down the Georgia Coast took to social media to debate whether they should stay or leave. Some chimed in, discussing what they knew about the Saffir-Simpson Scale classification.

“I’m so ridiculously prepared everyone would wanna be at my house. If it gets to cat 3 I’m out. Cat 2 is a breeze.”

Others felt the coverage on Matthew was dramatic and overhyped.

“I don’t think it’s gonna be that bad. Georgia has a reputation of panicking in weather situations.”

Those who expressed their intent to evacuate did so out of extra precaution, playing it safe and leaving in case the storm delivered a heavy blow to the region.

While meteorologists and officials at both local and state levels monitored Matthew for quite a while, time was running out to make decisions on evacuations. On Wednesday October 5, Chatham Emergency Management Agency (CEMA) urged residents to leave the island areas of the county. However, by Thursday morning, there was a greater sense of urgency as Georgia’s Governor, Nathan Deal, issued a mandatory evacuation for all coastal Georgia county areas east of Interstate 95. CEMA echoed this mandate and went a step further, asking that everyone in Chatham County evacuate as well.  There was little time left until the Savannah area would begin to bear the brunt from Matthew’s outer bands.

On Friday, just hours leading up to the storm’s impact on Georgia’s Golden Isles, meteorologists continued to stress the severity of the situation and the dangers for those who chose to stay. Dr. Rick Knabb, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) Director, plead to the public that those in coastal areas under a mandatory evacuation face not only dangerous winds but also life-threatening storm surge. The Weather Channel’s Bryan Norcross echoed Dr. Knabb’s sentiment with even stronger language, ensuring viewers that his warning was not hype but rather a heartfelt message imploring people to leave before it was too late. 

My main concern for my family’s home in Richmond Hill was storm surge. We live adjacent to a small creek and marshlands by the serpentine Ogeechee River. Because I had never experienced a hurricane before, I was unsure of what the impact could be for our immediate area. The National Hurricane Center’s Storm Surge Prototype Product called for 5-9 feet of storm surge inundation in my neighborhood. Coupled with my lack of personal hurricane experience, I decided to head inland 20 miles west to the city of Hinesville, where my aunt and uncle own a convenience store business. I knew we could safely shelter there for the duration of the storm.

As light rain began to fall late into the morning, our family gathered our belongings and hunkered down, equipped with enough supplies to get us through the next few days. Matthew continued creeping ever so closer, and the heavy rains began overspreading the entire area. Over the course of the afternoon, yards and parking lots filled with standing water. Tree limbs and debris littered the streets. Then came the squalls packed with gusty winds and torrential rains, pounding on the windows and doors. I watched nervously as our building’s façade shifted and flapped around uncontrollably. The wind and rain were unrelenting, and with each gust of wind came bright blue flashes from nearby transformers exploding. As nighttime fell upon us, the storm’s wrath became engulfed by an unsettling darkness that would last until the break of dawn.

As the edge of Matthew’s eye wall scraped by Tybee and Hilton Head Island, SC at around 2:30 AM, the torrential rain and hurricane force wind gusts continued well into the early hours of the morning. Social media was teeming with reports of extensive storm surge flooding along Georgia’s barrier islands, including Tybee, where many decided to weather Hurricane Matthew. After staying up the entire night staying updated on my smartphone, I was anxious to see how our community faired. The clock eventually hit 7:00, and the light of day revealed heartbreaking damage across the entire region. Flood waters turned many neighborhoods into lakes. Boats tied up to docks and marinas were tossed around on top of each other like children’s toys. Hundreds of massive oak trees draped in Spanish moss toppled onto homes and businesses all over the area.

As more and more people awoke that morning in Hinesville, it was apparent that many were not ready for what had happened. Dozens of cars came up to our convenience store, asking us to open our doors so they could get food and much needed supplies. Being one of only a handful of businesses open in a city of 35,000 people, you could imagine that the line stretched nearly out the door with people snatching up water, snacks, ice, and whatever else they could find.

What really struck me in that moment was the desperation that some people had as they scoured the empty shelves. One man searched furiously for charcoal so he could warm his infant’s formula. Another man needed milk for his young child to drink. Bags of ice sold out in a span of minutes. I stood there perplexed, wondering why people did not secure these essential items ahead of the storm. Many folks told us they watched the news reports leading up to the storm’s arrival, but they didn’t trust the severity of the impacts conveyed by the “weather folks” on T.V. They just didn’t think it would be that bad. And that belief meant many were simply unprepared to deal with the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.

As the winds subsided and the lingering rain showers dissipated, residents began surveying the damage left behind. One of my neighbors in Richmond Hill stepped outside to find 6 large fallen trees in her backyard. Her family had decided against evacuating. They were rattled by the crashing trees and the storm surge that crept up into their backyard, but they say it could have been much worse. They had generators to keep their refrigerator and freezers running, and they stocked up on all of the essential supplies. Another big factor in their decision to stay related to their father’s work as a volunteer firefighter, meaning he was obligated to respond if an emergency arose. So, instead of leaving, the entire family rode out the storm and kept him company.

Another neighbor and his family left their home to go inland. They used the opportunity to go on a mini-vacation to the central part of the state. When they returned several days later, they found two large oak trees that had fallen on their property, one of which barely missed their home. Though their house did not sustain structural damage, the massive tree trunks and myriad of branches and limbs scattered all over their yard reaffirmed the family’s decision to evacuate. Had the trees fallen directly on top of his house with everyone inside, the consequences would have been disastrous.

oaktreetdown

Oak Tree Uprooted by Hurricane Matthew – Via Minh Phan

In the following days, I had the chance to talk with many more residents, getting their perspectives on Hurricane Matthew. As I maneuvered my way through Downtown Savannah to scope out the damage in the city’s Historic District, I found my way to a local cafe, where I spoke with a woman standing outside with a cup of coffee in her hand. She told me she didn’t evacuate and gave me several reasons that bolstered her rationale. She lives in a three-story building in the heart of downtown, and her power rarely goes out. She also lives on the top floor, so she wasn’t worried about the potential for flooding. Most if not all of her neighbors decided to stay, affirming her decision because she had a social network that would keep her safe if anything were to happen. The storm to her wasn’t too terrible; as a matter of fact, she dozed off while watching the local news and didn’t wake up until the next morning. I asked her if she would leave or stay the next time our area was threatened by a tropical system. She said it truly depended on the circumstances and she just didn’t know what she would do in the future.

many-trees-down-matthew

Forsyth Park, Savannah, Ga. – via Minh Phan

I also spoke with evacuees who relied on the county’s public transit system to leave the area for inland shelters. They are among Chatham County’s most vulnerable, living in extreme poverty with few personal resources. I talked with one woman and asked her where she lived in the city. She smiled at me and was silent for a few seconds before telling me that she had no home and had nowhere to go. These evacuees were all citizens of our community. While they may not have as much as some, they, like all others in our area, were in the path of Hurricane Matthew, and they made the life-saving decision to leave.

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Ga. National Guard at Savannah International Trade – via Minh Phan

Many of the evacuees were appreciative of the services provided to them and knew that without this lifeline, they may not have made it out alive. But not everyone was happy. Some evacuees I spoke with were irritated with long lines, crowded cramped buses, and being unable to get home to assess the damage to their properties. While the sheltering efforts for the evacuees were an overall success, there were certainly logistical issues and communication shortfalls that exacerbated the mounting frustrations from both evacuees and volunteers. It is my worry that citizens who took advantage of the evacuation service may be reluctant to leave town the next time they are told to evacuate, simply because of the unpleasant nature of their experiences.

While meteorologists communicated the threats and impacts of Hurricane Matthew as best as they could in these circumstances, it became clear through my conversations with residents that the messages of life-threatening storm surge and the destructive wind and rain did not always translate into actions of preparedness and personal mitigation. Sure, some of those I spoke with who stayed bought extra supplies to ride out the storm. But in the immediate aftermath, the desperation of many scrambling to find whatever resources they could revealed that some residents neglected to do much of anything to prepare.

While everyone I spoke with had a unique situation or circumstance that determined the decisions they made, one commonality is that everyone was able to process the information provided to them (weather forecasts, evacuation orders, etc.) in their own way to come to a particular outcome. Those outcomes include the decision to evacuate or stay in their home and the extent of personal preparation for the storm. Mileti and Sorensen (1990) recognize this as the warning-response process, which states that decision-making is dependent on hearing, understanding, believing, personalizing, and subsequently responding. People will go through this process every time there is new additional information, and their response is based on the conglomeration of all the information together that ultimately elicits an action. If for instance an individual watches the evening weather forecast, they must take in the information, understand and believe the information, personalize what they understand, and finally respond in some way. This process occurs frequently depending on the amount of new information provided. With all of this knowledge, a person will then act accordingly to how they process what they now know.

pwr

Public Warning Response Model – Mileti and Sorensen 1990

The warning-response process becomes a little more complicated when you take into account the source that is disseminating the information and the people who receive the message. A multitude of factors between the sender of the message and the receiver of what is being conveyed can greatly affect the end response.

In the situation of Hurricane Matthew, local news organizations played a significant role in pushing out critical information regarding the storm’s forecast and impacts. Mileti and Sorensen (1990) recognize many components of the sender that affect the end-user’s decision-making processes, including the credibility of the source, the type of repetition used, and the specific pieces of information in the message that may include geographical locations or guidance for taking precautionary measures.

Many factors also affect how the receiver of information perceives and responds to the information provided by the sender. Ethnicity and culture affect how information is processed into an action. So too do the age, gender, and social role of the receiver. With the evacuees who relied on public transit to evacuate the county, the fact that they did not have a car or alternative means of transportation altered the way the information was processed. My neighbor whose father was unable to leave because of his responsibilities processed the information differently as well. So you can see how each it can become quite difficult to fully understand how and why people are motivated to do what they do.

Many research studies have specifically analyzed hurricane evacuation behaviors and variables that may affect personal decisions to stay or leave. Baker (1991) examined 15 studies from 1963 – 1990 that assessed specific factors that influence a household’s decision to evacuate. He found that the risk level of an area, actions by public authorities, and housing type were among the most consistent determinants present in all of the reviewed studies. Prior experiences with hurricanes however were not shown to be a significant predictor. A more recent study on household evacuation behavior by Huang et al. (2016) uses a statistical meta-analysis (SMA) to explore nearly 50 research articles. They too found similar results to Baker (1991) while also looking at newer perspectives associated with evacuation decision-making. Personal concerns with looting and criminal activity along with the financial burdens of evacuation were considered, but the number of studies that captured information on these newer variables was too few to definitively deduce any real conclusions.

While these previous studies provide a great foundation and hold much value in understanding key areas that motivate people when a hurricane threatens, they focus heavily on surveys and questionnaires that are unable to capture specific complexities that go into decision-making. Now is the time to consider more qualitatively-intensive efforts. In-depth ethnography for example is one potential worth considering. Ethnography involves researchers who are deeply engaged with participants in order to gain a more organic perspective with valuable insight on the intricacies of making a decision. This investigative method allows an opportunity for researchers to build interpersonal relationships with those they are studying to extract meaningful rich information that is authentic and untainted. Understanding the complexity of individual human lives and the many factors that go into a specific action will require a tremendous amount of effort and time. Ethnography and qualitative work itself is not simple, but it is one of many avenues in which we must consider to pursue the quest to uncover new knowledge and information.

In living through Hurricane Matthew and being a part of the recovery process, I was able to gain valuable insight from Georgians directly affected by the storm. Every single person has a different story and rationale for the decisions made, and these viewpoints will help to develop research questions and ideas that can guide future research in meteorology. Hurricane Matthew certainly left his mark on the Caribbean and on the Southeast United States. And while the storm proved to be incredibly destructive, it also serves as an opportunity for the weather enterprise to understand how we can move forward and investigate the social implications linked with weather and weather communication.


 References:

Baker, E. J. (1991). Hurricane evacuation behavior. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 9, 287-310.

Huang, S., Lindell, M. K., & Prater, C. S. (2016). Who Leaves and Who Stays? A Review and Statistical Meta-Analysis of Hurricane Evacuation Studies. Environment and Behavior, 48(8), 991-1029. doi:10.1177/0013916515578485

Mileti, D. S., & Sorensen, J. H. (1990). Communication of emergency public warnings: A social science perspective and state-of-the-art assessment.

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