Fewer need to flee as Palm Beach County revamps its decades-old hurricane strategy

Apr 17, 2012

The following article was published in The Palm Beach Post on April 17, 2012: 

Fewer need to flee as county revamps its decades old hurricane strategy

By Eliot Kleinberg

More than 100,000 people in Palm Beach County who previously would have been told to leave their homes in a hurricane now won’t, as part of the most dramatic overhaul in decades of the county’s evacuation plan.

In a minimal hurricane, for example, up to 138,000 people who have been in evacuation zones now will be told to stay put.

Thousands more – emergency managers say “you know who you are” – continue to be called upon to get out in any hurricane. They’re in the county’s estimated 49,000 mobile homes, or in substandard structures, or in neighborhoods prone to intense flooding.

Managers stress that no one evacuates for wind. Evacuation zones are for the threat of flooding, either by ocean storm surge or overflowing waterways.

For years, managers – relying on outdated technology that forced them to err on the side of caution – drew evacuation plans more with a sledgehammer than a scalpel.

The savings from these reduced evacuations, both financial and psychological, are enormous.

Every mile of populated coastline evacuated costs up to $1 million in unnecessary personal outlay, lost business and government expenses, managers say.

And there’s the effect of fleeing one’s home and sleeping at a strange place – or being stuck in a long line of slow-moving cars.

The old plan had only two levels.

In a Category 1 or 2 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Scale – top sustained winds of 74 to 110 mph – evacuations were directed for all coastal barrier islands and all properties within a block of a coastal or tidal body of water, as well as areas prone to flooding.

In a major hurricane – Category 3 or higher – evacuations expanded to include everyone east of U.S. 1, east of Alternate A1A from Lake Park north, in most parts of the Jupiter area, and in West Palm Beach east of Olive Avenue or Federal Highway.

The new system creates five plans, A through E.

They’re lined up with hurricane categories, but are not automatic. Emergency managers can make a call on which plan to implement.

That means they base their plan on factors besides storm strength: the storm’s angle and forward speed, its breadth, the projected time of landfall, tides, storm surge forecasts, whether the storm is expected to bring a lot of rain, whether the ground is saturated from previous rain, or whether buildings are still damaged from a previous storm.

In Plan A, no one leaves – even on barrier islands. (This doesn’t include mobile home residents and others who should leave in any case.)

The changes, to be announced today, reflect a major leap in technology and a major exercise in risk-balancing.

For more than a decade, federal, state and local emergency managers and researchers used lasers to better measure elevation and other factors that go into evacuation strategies. The lasers cut margins of error in many cases from 5 feet to 6 inches.

The new data let managers redraw maps dating to 1982, often measured by surveying sticks.

In recent years, the mapping has been even more fine-tuned.

On top of that, managers now have updated versions of a computerized model run by the National Hurricane Center that estimates the height of a storm surge and how far inland it goes.

County emergency officials decided many people in evacuation zones were at such low risk they were better off staying put. Past studies “use the ‘maximum of maximum,’ ” Emergency Manager Bill Johnson said.

“It layers all different directions of storms on top of each other and creates the absolute worst scenario,” he said.

Not everyone will move out of evacuation zones. Much of Boca Raton east of Interstate 95 is now in the top-end Plan E.

At 14 miles, the town of Palm Beach accounts for nearly a third of the county’s coastline – and some of its most valuable real estate. While many residents leave for the summer, those who stay wouldn’t have to leave in a minimal storm. But Mayor Gail Coniglio said that’s their call.

“As a mother, I go back to safety first,” Coniglio said. “That certainly is their choice. But they should have an evacuation plan in place.”

The Don Fountain family in West Palm Beach knows about hurricanes. Don’s grandfather ran the Fountain’s department stores from 1939 to 1986.

Fountain and his wife, Marla, live on South Flagler Drive between Southern and Forest Hill boulevards. Under the old plan, they would leave even in a Category 1. In the three storms of 2004-2005, Marla said, they didn’t.

A side street had some minor drainage-related flooding, she said, but “we knew the water would drain quickly, being right on the Intracoastal (Waterway) – and it did.”

In the new plan, the Fountains aren’t in the zone until Plan C, which aligns with a Category 3 hurricane.

Marla said the new zone plans make more sense.

“A Category 1? I think it’s ridiculous,” she said of the old plan. “If it’s a high tide, and a full moon, maybe that’s when we should leave in a Category 2.”

Evacuation changes:

Who goes, who stays

The county is instituting five evacuation levels, mostly tied to the five strength categories of hurricanes on the Saffir-Simpson scale. All people in mobile homes, substandard housing, or neighborhoods prone to heavy local flooding would leave in all categories and are not included in this chart.


Level evacuated New plan

A 137,962 0

B 137,962 74,104

C 191,408 138,163

D 191,408 170,738

E 191,408 210,059