The Age of Evacuation

It’s commonplace now to say that governments have to change the way they plan and build in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The governors of New York and New Jersey said as much in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, and there’s little question that they mean it. Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo know better than most what reconstruction will cost, and how the rebuilding process will wreak havoc on their states’ budgets.

They know that their states simply can’t afford to keep rebuilding after every storm, just as they know that there will be more storms in this new age of violent weather patterns.

But other kinds of changes are necessary, and they start from the bottom up. The residents of New York and New Jersey, especially those in low-lying areas, have to understand that government officials aren’t kidding when they order an evacuation. In the immortal words of the governor of New Jersey, they have to get the hell off the beach if they are told to do so.

Most New Yorkers and New Jerseyans did just that, and if you want to know why there weren’t more deaths associated on Sandy, give credit to those level-headed residents of New Dorp and Midland Beach on Staten Island, the Rockaways, the Battery and dozens of Jersey shore towns. They left when evacuations were ordered, and in the process, they may have saved their lives.

Some people, however, chose to ignore official warnings. Some may have been skeptical of the dire forecasts, some simply have decided that no government official was going to tell them what to do.

More than a thousand go-it-aloners on Staten Island had to be rescued, at no small risk to members of the New York Police Department who braved a storm surge and downed power lines to save the lives of those trapped by the storm. Eight others died in the Staten Island town of Midland Beach, a small, low-lying community of bungalows that would not have looked out of place in Breezy Point or Seaside Heights.

This simply can’t happen again. In the storm to come—and there surely will be another superstorm in the near future—even the toughest New Yorkers have to realize that they are no match for a storm surge. Evacuation orders are not requests, nor are they issued lightly. Government may not have the power to force people from their homes, but from now on, it must be made clear that those who remain behind are, in essence, on their own.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressed this very issue during a visit to Staten Island. “The issue of those who either can’t or won’t abide by [evacuation] orders, that is a question we have to address,” she said.

The first part of the question is easy—assist in the evacuation of those who can’t leave.

As for those who won’t abide by evacuation orders, they have to understand that their decision will have consequences.

This is the new reality. Most New Yorkers understand that. Those who don’t cannot and should not expect that first responders will continue to risk their lives because of somebody’s foolishness.

The Age of Evacuation