How Rural Areas Like Florida’s Panhandle Can Become More Hurricane-Ready
By Eren Erman Ozguven
When Hurricane Michael roared onto northwest Florida's Gulf Coast in October 2018, its 160 mile-per-hour winds made it the strongest storm ever to hit the region. It was only the fourth Category 5 storm on record to make landfall in the U.S.
Thousands of residents, from the coast to 100 miles inland, were left without housing, power, food or water. Schools, stores, businesses and many government buildings shut down for weeks. Hospitals had to temporarily stop services.
Months later, many locals were still trying to survive in battered, tarp-covered homes or living in tents, relying on local food banks for survival. Lacking customers, some business owners shuttered their doors and left town.
In Michael's aftermath, it gradually became apparent that Florida's Panhandle experienced more severe damage than many urban areas around the state that are relatively better prepared for behemoth storms. I have seen firsthand how this was due to lack of preparedness and infrastructure that was aging, limited and substandard.
I have studied hurricane resilience for the past 13 years and know that better preparation can help make communities more resilient in the face of major disasters. As the high-risk months approach, I and other Florida State University scholars from many different fields are working with local communities to help them get ready and improve their response plans.
Lost Homes and Livelihoods
After Hurricane Michael passed through, I drove to Panama City — one of the hardest-hit areas — with fellow FAMU-FSU College of Engineering professors Juyeong Choi and Tarek Abichou. We made the trip to observe infrastructure and community damage and meet with local emergency management officials as part of a project supported by the federally funded Natural Hazards Center, which works to reduce harm from natural disasters.
To get there from Tallahassee, we drove west on State Road 20, an inland route that took us through ravaged rural areas. We returned along U.S. Highway 98, a scenic road that hugs the Gulf of Mexico, stopping at Mexico Beach — a small coastal tourist town that was nearly wiped away by Hurricane Michael's winds and storm surge.
The damage we saw was beyond anything we had imagined. There were hundreds of thousands of downed trees and hundreds of blocked roadways. Numerous houses and farms were completely destroyed, along with extensive timber plantations — the region's big money-producing crop.
FSU planner-in-residence Dennis Smith, who has worked for decades in emergency management in the public and private sectors, was just as stunned. "The damage, both the magnitude and the geographic extent and intensity, was some of the worst I had ever seen," he told me. "There are extensive housing losses (far inland) and the damage to woodlands is like nothing I've ever seen."
The social impacts were equally daunting. "We were especially not prepared for the numbers of homeless," said Ellen Piekalkiewicz, who directs a center focusing on the needs of communities, families and children at FSU's College of Social Work. In the schools, she said, "there have been a number of kids having psychological problems."
Planning for the Next Big Storm
It is extremely challenging to prepare for very fast Category 5 hurricanes like Hurricane Michael. Storms of this size generate extreme winds and storm surge that knock out communications — including cellphone towers — and transportation routes. But proactive planning and community-level decision making can ensure that no one is left without assistance.
One essential step is identifying critical escape and emergency response routes, which are at high risk of disruption during these disasters. Pinpointing these routes in advance provides time to improve roadway infrastructure and develop alternative public evacuation plans in case primary routes are blocked.
It also is important to assess which demographic and socioeconomic groups will be most affected by damage to power lines and roadways — for example, aging populations. Studying power outages and roadway closures during hurricanes, together with a region's physical features, reveals vulnerable locations that will be at high risk in future events.
My engineering colleagues and I also are studying how uncertainty about storm tracks affects evacuation planning and how wind damage to buildings varies with different types of terrain. These are crucial questions for storm preparedness.
#HurricaneMichael just hours away from a catastrophic, unprecedented #Florida Panhandle, Big Bend Cat. 4 landfall.… https://t.co/97B6EcuMLe— The Weather Channel (@The Weather Channel)1539164645.0
Another high priority is identifying and supporting at-risk populations. Especially in rural areas like Florida's Panhandle, planners need good information on population size, location and composition. The most effective way to collect it is by working with nonprofit agencies, volunteer groups, faith-based organizations, community-based centers, neighborhood-level groups, hospitals and governmental organizations.
"Involving these entities in hurricane training exercises is also important to build trust," FSU public administration professor Richard Feiock told me. "That makes communities stronger and more durable when a hurricane hits."
One promising strategy we have identified through focusing on the needs of vulnerable groups is repurposing existing hurricane shelters to serve evacuees with pets or other special needs. Experience has shown that some people will remain in harm's way instead of evacuating if they think leaving means abandoning their pets.
National Guard members distribute food and water in Miller County, Georgia, Oct. 12, 2018, during Hurricane Michael relief efforts.
U.S. Air National Guard / Tech. Sgt. Amber Williams / CC BY 4.0
Getting the Word Out
Communities also need to develop systems for alerting residents about hurricane risks and getting accurate information to them as quickly as possible when a storm threatens. Such networks can include radio, TV, phone and even door-to-door notification. In rural areas it is especially important to design strong community training programs, and to foster strong social networks that draw on neighbor-to-neighbor ties and other personal connections.
Hurricane warning information should include locations and types of shelters, along with dates, times and locations for pickups if transportation is available, and should explain what people can bring with them. Our research indicates that with these improvements, Panhandle communities and others like them can develop better emergency plans that reduce the stress of evacuations, provide safe shelter and ultimately save lives.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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