Most experts agree that re-entry plans should be left flexible. Hurricanes are unpredictable — varying in category and wind speed, with different storm surge and force of flooding — and a one-size-fits-all plan simply wouldn’t work, they say.
“These disasters are very fluid, very variable,” said Brian Wolshon, a professor of civil engineering at Louisiana State University who has studied the topic for about 20 years.
“If you make a plan and advertise it to the public... if there’s a formal plan, then you’re stuck with it,” he said.
Indeed, a hurricane has multiple factors that are difficult to predict: its direction, wind speed, the storm surge and flooding, to name a few. But there are some aspects of hurricane preparedness that can be boiled down and outlined from before the storm hits, say experts.
Wolshon uses the word “framework,” which he defines as a “loose plan of action.”
“You’re better able to improvise intelligently if you’ve planned for the dance,” said Michael Lindell, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington who has conducted research on emergency preparedness and response for 40 years.
Here are some factors that experts say should be considered when it comes to hurricane planning and preparedness:
1. Determine criteria for re-entry.
Law enforcement officers should have basic criteria to determine whether a particular area is safe enough so that residents can return, Lindell said. Does that mean the roads must be clear of downed trees and power lines? Or does it mean that homes should have electricity? These are certain factors that can be determined ahead of time.
2. Improve coordination between government agencies.
Last October, Beaufort County learned just how messy emergency procedures could be when state, county and local officials were on different pages.
Often, poor coordination is not just a matter of miscommunication. It also has to do with a tension between different agencies — such as towns versus the county — but between elected officials and non-elected personnel as well.
While non-elected personnel, for example, might have more conservative estimates about when to let residents back into an area after a hurricane, elected officials feel the need to be responsive to their constituents, and therefore might be more inclined to move through re-entry more quickly, Wolshon said.
“So you might have elected officials who will be directed or ordered to do something that they’re uncomfortable with,” Wolshon said. “It sets up an interesting dynamic.”
And those inherent tensions could lead to breakdowns in coordination.
3. Regularly train and evaluate.
The last time Beaufort County had to direct a controlled re-entry was in 1959 — which meant that the county went almost six decades without experiencing a need to practice re-entry procedures.
“There’s a loss of institutional knowledge about what you did last time, and what works and what didn’t work,” said Shannon Van Zandt, a professor at Texas A&M University who works with the university’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center.
“And so it’s important for agencies to actually go through the process of evaluating what worked and what didn’t work, and capturing it in a way that learning can be maintained over a period of time,” Van Zandt said. “And I think as part of that, agencies should do regular training.”
4. Conduct vulnerability assessments of communities.
Local agencies can evaluate the topography of counties, which means they can better predict which areas are most vulnerable to storm surge, flooding and downed trees, among other factors.
And that includes social vulnerability, too, said Van Zandt.
“‘Social vulnerability’ is the idea that people vary in their ability to both anticipate a disaster and also respond and recover from a disaster,” Van Zandt said.
Those demographics can be broken down by age, gender, income, race and ethnicity, and the number of people with disabilities in a given area. Different groups of people have different sources of information and different abilities to respond to disasters — which is why law enforcement agencies should not only have access to those assessments, but also should plan how to help people in various predicaments, Van Zandt said.
5. Solicit residents’ input.
“The quality of the planning for an emergency is highly correlated with the amount of participation that the community has in the planning process,” said Jennifer Horney, a Texas A&M University professor who studies public health impacts of disasters and social responses to them.
That doesn’t just mean, for instance, just putting out a public notice about a meeting at city hall at noon on a weekday, Horney said. It means making a concerted effort to go out into the community, speak to residents about their experiences, listen to their complaints and advice, and take their feedback seriously when revising hurricane procedures.
“That can go a long way toward people trusting whatever problems happened last time won't happen again,” Horney said. “But it's hard. It's hard to do all that community engagement work with all the various segments of the community that need to be included."