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Foolhardy acts of defiance risked others' lives in storm

By DIANE STEINLE
Published August 22, 2004

"We chose to fill the coolers full of beer."

That is how a group of Clearwater Beach residents prepared to meet Hurricane Charley, according to the quote in a St. Petersburg Times story on Aug. 15.

Ordered to evacuate the vulnerable barrier island as the strengthening hurricane bore down on Pinellas County, this group instead donned life jackets in a show of sarcasm and headed for a beach bar to party.

In doing so, they and others who laughed or languished in the face of a Category 4 hurricane proved that foolishness knows no limits.

What would the people of interior Florida, whose homes are blown to bits and whose lives may never be the same, say about such folly?

They might say that those who were worried or even frightened at the prospect of being hit by such a storm were realists. That those who scrambled to gather their belongings, protect their property and provide for the safety of their loved ones demonstrated wisdom. That planning ahead and understanding your vulnerabilities is a sign of strength, not weakness.

While many people who live in Pinellas evacuation zones A, B and C did leave as ordered last week, others did not. They were determined to ride out the storm, no matter its strength, even though they lived in areas that would have been swamped by storm surge or in mobile homes that could not stand up to such a blow.

In insisting on remaining where they were, they not only put their own lives in jeopardy, they also risked the lives of people who would attempt to rescue them at the eleventh hour. Perhaps they feel they have the right to make the choice about their own safety, but they do not have the right to put public safety officers or good Samaritans in danger.

Many people who live outside of the county-designated evacuation zones also did little to prepare for Hurricane Charley. That was clear from a ride around Pinellas on Friday morning, just hours before the hurricane turned east toward Punta Gorda. Relatively few homes had boarded-up windows. Garage doors were left unsecured, though the doors are known entry points for wind that lifts off roofs in hurricanes. Playground equipment and lawn furniture remained in yards, set to become deadly projectiles in the wind.

Were all those residents just waiting to find out if Charley would hit Pinellas? Perhaps they are unaware that thoroughly preparing a home for a coming storm can take a day or two of back-breaking work.

Did they mistakenly believe that because they were not in mandatory evacuation zones, there was no danger to them? Evacuation zones are only areas that are prone to flooding from storm surge or rising water. Those areas are evacuated so the residents will not drown when the water rises. However, all properties, even those that are not in evacuation zones, are vulnerable to destruction from a hurricane's wind, which can be as deadly and destructive as flood waters.

Pinellas County officials have launched a study of the area's response to the danger presented by Hurricane Charley. They want to find out who didn't evacuate and why, where problems occurred in the evacuation process and where communication could be improved. They already know they need to find a more effective way to teach residents about the potential dangers of a hurricane and how to respond appropriately.

They have their work cut out for them. While some residents might be amenable to receiving such lessons and putting them to use the next time a storm threatens, others are not. They will believe they know more than the experts or that they can defy the wind. They will load the cooler with beer.

After all, Florida residents already have been exposed to the lessons of one very impressive teacher - a teacher named Andrew.

Diane Steinle can be reached by e-mail at steinle@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 22, 2004, 01:26:28]


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