Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

How Rural Areas Like Florida’s Panhandle Can Become More Hurricane-Ready

Insights + Opinion
Secretary Carson surveys recovery in Florida Panhandle following Hurricane Michael. U.S. HUD / Flickr / Public Domain

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.

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved two Lysol products as the first to effectively kill the novel coronavirus on surfaces, based on laboratory testing. Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of 431 products that are effective at killing viruses when they are on surfaces. Now, a good year for Lysol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser just got better when the EPA said that two Lysol products are among the products that can kill the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveils the Green New Deal resolution in front of the U.S. Capitol on February 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

By Judith Lewis Mernit

For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.

Read More Show Less
About 30,000 claims contending that Roundup caused non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are currently unsettled. Mike Mozart / CC BY 2.0

Bayer's $10 billion settlement to put an end to roughly 125,000 lawsuits against its popular weed killer Roundup, which contains glyphosate, hit a snag this week when a federal judge in San Francisco expressed skepticism over what rights future plaintiffs would have, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Read More Show Less
Hundreds of sudden elephant deaths in Botswana aren't just a loss for the ecosystem and global conservation efforts. Mario Micklisch / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Charli Shield

When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.

Read More Show Less
Trump sits during a meeting about safely reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic on July 7, 2020, in Washington, DC. JIM WATSON / AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration began the formal process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO), a White House official said Tuesday, even as coronavirus cases continue to surge in the country.

Read More Show Less
Refrigerated trucks function as temporary morgues at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal on May 06, 2020 in New York City. As of July, the states where COVID-19 cases are rising are mostly in the West and South. Justin Heiman / Getty Images

The official number of people in the U.S. who have lost their lives to the new coronavirus has now passed 130,000, according to tallies from The New York Times, Reuters and Johns Hopkins University.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A man walks on pink snow at the Presena glacier near Pellizzano, Italy on July 4, 2020. MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP via Getty Images

In a troubling sign for the future of the Italian Alps, the snow and ice in a glacier is turning pink due to the growth of snow-melting algae, according to scientists studying the pink ice phenomenon, as CNN reported.

Read More Show Less