Experts praise decisions to evacuate from Irene

By Seth Borenstein

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 29 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2011 file photo, residents and vacationers head north on Long Beach Blvd as they heed the mandatory evacuation imposed by local officials as the area prepares for the arrival of Hurricane Irene makes it's way up the east coast in Beach Haven, N.J. Disaster experts unanimously said evacuating was the right choice and it saved lives. But these were tough nail-biting calls that are now being second-guessed.

Joe Epstein, File, Associated Press

NEW YORK — They were life and death decisions made by politicians, bureaucrats and everyday people. Hurricane Irene was barreling towards the East Coast. It was big. It was scary. Flooding was certain. The choice: Flee or stay put.

Disaster experts unanimously said evacuating was the right choice and it saved lives. But these were tough nail-biting calls that are now being second-guessed.

In New York City, it was debated during a critical staff meeting in City Hall where the deadly specter of Katrina and New Orleans was raised. On Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying he worried about deadly flooding in low-lying areas, made the first ever call for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to leave their homes.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was trademark blunt in his order: "Get the hell off the beach."

Since Irene didn't hit with the advertised fury, those decisions and others up and down the Eastern Seaboard are being reexamined. Experts in hurricanes and disaster preparations and risk analysis, though, only had praise Monday, pointing out it takes a long time to evacuate densely populated areas and the hurricane's forecasts left little room for error.

"Second-guessing is easy, making those evacuation calls is not," said George Washington University risk sciences professor George Gray, a former senior Environmental Protection Agency official in the George W. Bush administration. ""Given available information, I think risk analysts would say the right choices were made."

Traditionally, larger areas and more people have be evacuated than turns out to be necessary, said Florida State University professor Jay Baker, who has studied hurricane evacuation.

"That's just an artifact of the uncertainty," said Baker.

Meteorologists have gotten pretty good at figuring out a storm's path, but predicting its strength is a struggle. They nailed Irene's track but it weakened more than forecast as it moved north.

Irene "was a very dangerous storm," said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, saying this storm was handled far better than 2005's Katrina. "I don't think there's any doubt that lives were saved."

Jack and Sue Holloway are probably two of those lives. The Delaware residents dithered about staying at their beach home in coastal Lewes. They decided to stay, and then changed their minds when Delaware Gov. Jack Markell urged an evacuation at a news conference.

Saturday night, strong winds from what officials believe was a tornado spun off by Irene damaged several homes in Lewes, ripping off the top of the Holloways' home, blasting apart the garage.

Along the Connecticut shore, East Haven firefighters went door-to-door to tell residents to leave. Some residents wouldn't go and needed to be rescued, Fire Chief Doug Jackson said. Twenty-five beachfront homes were destroyed.

"They jeopardize themselves when they stay there. They also jeopardize my people," Fire Chief Jackson said. "Now I have to make rescues that should not have been necessary."

East Haven's Bill Cowles, 55, never considered leaving his home. The water rose to just below the electrical sockets on the first floor and he could see neighbors' houses crashing around him.

"When the water started coming in the front door, I knew we were in trouble," he said. Still, Cowles said he was glad he stayed because he had to chase away people who were watching the storm and taking pictures from his yard.

New Jersey's governor was certain he did the right thing.

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