ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Texas Governor Greg Abbott encouraged people in low lying or coastal areas to evacuate, even if a mandatory evacuation order had not been issued. However, local and county officials in Houston continued to urge the opposite, telling residents to shelter and stay in place.
Houston officials recall Hurricane Rita in 2005 when 2.5 million people were ordered to evacuate. Officials later reported 60 out of the 100 deaths were tied to those frantic evacuations clogging the interstate.
Officials on the First Coast know the difficult decision well. They say it’s not a snap decision and to trust your county’s emergency team during a disaster.
Luckily for St. Augustine, Hurricane Matthew side-swiped the coast last year instead of making a direct hit.
St. Augustine Fire Chief Carlos Aviles said St. Johns County “got a last minute deviation from the storm,” but said Houston wasn’t as fortunate. “They got a last minute intensification," he said.
Aviles led the evacuation order in St. Augustine as Matthew was getting closer last October. He went door to door with Mayor Nancy Shaver telling people they should leave.
“It’s difficult for people to leave personal property,” Aviles said.
He said people are always hesitant, but their orders are not issued lightly.
“When we issue an evacuation, people need to take this seriously, this is a calculated decision, there’s an algorithm to it," he said.
“I would never second-guess his decision,” said Mayor Shaver of Houston officials. She said she trusts he made the best decision with the information he had at the time.
Shaver said their evacuation plans in St Johns County are “rock-solid,” but they are always working to improve.
“Potentially some better ways of communication post-storm, because that’s a huge gap, you can’t reach people well," Shaver said. "So we talked about possibly some solar-powered broadcast equipment that can be dropped into neighborhoods and allow people to charge their phones."
Aviles said looking back, there isn’t much they should change. He just wished more people would have heeded their warning, since about 50 percent stayed.
He said the most important thing you can do for your family is being prepared and knowing your evacuation zone. Authorities will do their part to make sure you aren’t evacuated into another evacuation zone or will direct you to a shelter if needed.
St. Johns County will no longer be using their evacuation zone color-coded tags. Instead, just make sure to have government-issued IDs on you.
To prevent a massive traffic jam during an evacuation emergency operations teams from different counties train together and devise routes so they can stagger evacuation zones to leave at different times. That way, the roadways are less clogged.