The post storm order was as predictable as the power outages. “Do not return until you are told that it is safe!”
We’ve all heard variations of the same pronouncement. A weary emergency operations chief, in obvious need of sleep, stands before a thicket of microphones and TV cameras, telling those folks who evacuated before the storm that they can’t go home, though the storm has passed. Not yet. Not until officialdom deems it is safe.
This time, the official spoke with a Texas accent. He was talking about Galveston. But we’ve heard similar orders issued all along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts in the days after a hurricane. The problem, of course, is no public official can bear taking responsibility for the risk facing residents coming back into their rubble-strewn neighborhoods.
Understandably, public safety officials look at that anarchic mess and see a myriad of potential hazards. What residents see are all of their worldly belongings exposed to rain and looters. And they see police roadblocks between themselves and their homes.
This tension can drag on for days, even weeks. Public safety officials who spend so much time planning on how to evacuate residents from a vulnerable area spend too little time figuring out how to get folks back home. It’s a neglected consideration in public policy that has become an important factor in evacuation decisions.
The difficulty of returning, of slipping past those inevitable police roadblocks, to check on the state of my house, my dogs, my neighbors, has become a major factor on deciding whether I’d evacuate in the first place. All those harping newscasters and mayors and fire chiefs saying, “No, it’s not safe yet to go back,” is trumped by the voice in a homeowner’s head. “This is my home. This is all I’ve got. The damn storm is gone. Who the hell are you to tell me I can’t go home?”