Survivors: Bring on the season

They made it through four hurricanes last season. Now some people think they can face anything.

Published June 14, 2005

Rain and wind from Tropical Storm Arlene were starting to pelt Pensacola Beach, but Lloyd Hess wasn't budging from his waterfront home.

"After Ivan, we can handle just about anything," Hess, 69, said Friday night. "There's no reason to leave if it's only going to be a Category 1 or 2 hurricane."

It's a refrain heard every hurricane season: Despite evacuation warnings, thousands of residents in high-risk areas choose to stay put. Maybe they're reluctant to abandon their pets. Maybe they want to guard their belongings.

Now, in the aftermath of the worst hurricane season in Florida's history, there's a new excuse. Call it post-2004 bravado - the belief among some that if you survived last year's four hurricanes, you can handle whatever Mother Nature throws your way.

While evacuations were ordered in all coastal areas and mobile home parks in Escambia County, only 33 people sought refuge in emergency shelters during Arlene. The low figure was particularly troubling to emergency operations officials because thousands of county residents were still living in mobile homes because of damage from Hurricane Ivan.

Dozens of people didn't even bother with shelter, spending the storm on the beach watching 15-foot swells crash on shore. Some tried to get in the water before they were chased away by Escambia County sheriff's deputies.

Fortunately, Arlene didn't pose much of a threat, its winds slowing to 60 mph before making landfall Saturday afternoon just west of Pensacola. But emergency officials fear this false sense of confidence could eventually prove deadly.

"God bless America, they have a right to be dumb," said Larry Gispert, director of emergency management for Hillsborough County. "It's human nature to not want to think about things that are bad. And if you don't think about them, they don't happen, right?"

Gispert said his department gives more than 100 presentations a year, hoping to educate the community on the dangers associated with hurricanes. He shows films and pictures of the aftermath.

But people still refuse to evacuate.

"If I could, I'd physically go and drive every single one of them to a shelter," Gispert said. "But I can't."

Joy Tsubooka, an Escambia County communications specialist, was more optimistic. She attributed the small number of people at shelters to increased preparedness. More people are making plans to stay with family and friends rather than rely on shelters, she said.

"They're treating the shelters as their last option," Tsubooka said.

But a recent Mason-Dixon poll tells a different story. Even after last year's quartet of hurricanes, 56 percent of people in a dozen Eastern and Gulf Coast states don't feel vulnerable to hurricanes. A quarter of the respondents said they would do nothing to prepare.

In Florida, 30 percent of people don't have a hurricane plan, the poll found.

"You can't legislate common sense and good judgment," said Gary Vickers, Pinellas County's director of emergency management.

Vickers blames some of the lackadaisical attitude on the news media. Having reporters standing on a beach as a storm blows sends a mixed message to audiences, he said.

"It says to people, "You can do this and still survive it,"' Vickers said. "It just makes it that much more difficult for people to take the storm seriously."

Wind speed doesn't necessarily dictate how damaging a storm will be, he said. Flying debris can kill no matter how fast the wind is blowing and there is always the potential for flash flooding.

Vickers warned all residents to be cautious, no matter how benign the storm may seem.

"We're not expecting people to cower in their closets. We're just trying to get people to take precautions," he said. "I hope people aren't playing the odds, because the odds can turn against you."

--Carrie Johnson can be reached at 727 892-2273 or cjohnson@sptimes.com