Emergency officials fear the worst: procrastinators

They're the ones who call on the eve of the storm and want to know whether they should evacuate, how to get their medicine and who will go pick up their mother.

Published May 29, 2005

The frantic calls that poured in by the hundreds to the Hillsborough County Emergency Management office confirmed Larry Gispert's worst fears.

Too many people had waited too long to do something.

When Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne were closing in on Tampa Bay last summer, switchboards at emergency management offices throughout the area lit up with callers who were finding out what everyone else knew: that stores had run out of batteries, water, plywood and portable generators. Even worse, other callers didn't know whether they lived in a mandatory evacuation zone.

"I spent 20 minutes arguing with a man who lives across the street from an evacuation zone," said Gispert, Hillsborough's emergency management director. "He kept telling me he didn't have to leave.

"I finally told him that if he wanted to depend on a line drawn across the street, that was his decision. But he should evacuate because those lines aren't exact.

"I don't know whether he left or not."

Sometimes the calls bordered on the absurd. Like the Brandon man who asked Gispert to go to South Gandy to evacuate his mother from a mobile home park. Gispert asked why the man couldn't drive there himself.

"We've been fighting the last 15 years," the man explained.

After the storms passed and power was still out in large areas, the tone of the callers got more desperate. Some people hadn't had anything to eat or drink for several days. Others had run out of their prescription medication, and drugstores were closed.

"Why would they call me and say, "I don't have insulin, you need to help me?' " Gispert asked. "Can I run down to the drugstore for them? Of course not."

Gispert found it hard to hide his exasperation.

"We've been preaching for years about having a hurricane kit, a three-day supply of water, food, batteries and medicine," he said. "And after Frances and Jeanne, people called up saying, "I don't have anything to eat or drink.' I asked, "Where's your hurricane kit?' There was silence on the end of the phone.

"I took those kind of phone calls, and it was across the board. These were people from all segments of the socioeconomic scale."

No statistics are kept on the number of people who don't respond to hurricane warnings. Most of the evidence is anecdotal, like phone calls to an emergency management office.

Drawing from everything he saw and heard last summer, Gispert said that despite all the lectures and the hurricane guides and the public service announcements, a huge number of Tampa Bay residents were caught off-guard.

"I don't think the population was prepared," Gispert said.

The biggest problem for the Tampa Bay area during the 2004 hurricane season wasn't flooding, structural damage, or roads clogged with cars heading out of harm's way. It was massive power outages, especially during Jeanne.

Working from the areas with the largest number of outages to those with the smallest, crews from Progress Energy, Tampa Electric and other utilities worked around the clock to restore power. Still, some people were without electricity for two weeks or longer.

But the biggest problem from the perspective of emergency management officials was massive public procrastination.

"Evacuations and hurricane preparations are not nice things, so a lot of people just ignore them," Gispert said. "It just amazes me that people who have lived in the Tampa Bay area for a number of years don't even know which evacuation zone they live in.

"I've given hundreds of public presentations, and our staff gives over 100 presentations to anybody who will listen. And we give out several hundred thousand maps with evacuation zones. If someone can't read the maps, we'll do it for them.

"But people want to call us in the middle of an evacuation and ask which zone they live in. We've got 1.1-million people in Hillsborough County, and we can't afford to talk to people when the storm is a day out.

"It's not a lack of information," Gispert added. "There is information everywhere - on our Web site, on major radio stations, in the newspapers, on TV - about what to do and where to go."

Because the Tampa Bay area felt the effects of three storms, the lessons learned from the first one, Charley, were carried over.

"So that when we got to Frances, more people were thinking ahead about preparations," said Pinellas County emergency management director Gary Vickers. "And by the time we got to Jeanne, people had a much better idea of the necessity to do something.

"I don't want to say that everybody was a convert. But there was a cumulative effect that has probably continued on and will ramp up as we start the 2005 season."

That, at least, is the hope.

Gispert knows some people who bought plywood last summer wanted to return it once the season ended instead of storing it for the next season.

"People in the bay area say they experienced a hurricane last summer." Gispert said. "They didn't. We had two tropical storms come through.

"If Charley would've come up Tampa Bay, we would've been counting body bags. If that 14- to 15-foot storm surge and 140 mph winds hit this area, Pinellas and Hillsborough would've had a number of people who would've died. Why? Because people waited until the last minute and didn't evacuate.

"They just weren't ready."

Even Gispert will be more prepared this summer.

Every holiday and every birthday, he gives his wife a microwave, a vacuum cleaner or some other thoughtful appliance. And every year, his wife has been less than thrilled.

This Easter, he presented her with a $600, 5-kilowatt gas-powered generator. The couple live in Tampa on the Interbay peninsula, and last summer, they lost power for six days after Frances, and for five days after Jeanne.

"For the first time in 35 years of marriage," Gispert said, "she thanked me."

What you REALLY need to survive for 72 hours

Most people know about the essential hurricane survival supplies - batteries, a portable radio, flashlights, at least a gallon of bottled water per person per day, nonperishable food, a first-aid kit and extra prescription medication such as insulin.

There are some other, less essential items that could also come in handy:

An adapter you can plug into your car's cigarette lighter to charge your cell phone.

Lots of plastic garbage bags. They can protect you and at least some of your valuables from water damage.

Matches and lighters. All those candles won't work without them.

Waterless antibacterial hand soap, moist towelettes (such as Wet Ones).

Toilet paper, paper towels.


Gas cans.

A nonportable, plug-in-the-wall telephone.

At least one large cooler.

Paperback books and several decks of playing cards.

Plastic tarps for temporary roof or window repair.

Hammers, nails, screwdrivers, pliers.