It wasn’t Josh Gibson’s first storm.
The Beaufort native, a photographer who’s lived in the area for more than three decades, has memories of Hurricane David as a child in 1979.
He was away and missed Hugo in 1989, but he evacuated for Floyd in 1999 — he left early and didn’t get stuck in what a New York Times piece called “the perfect traffic jam” that characterized the storm for so many South Carolinians.
“A lot of good lessons were learned from the failures of that evacuation,” Gibson recently said, “and I just hope that we can learn from what happened (after October’s Hurricane Matthew), so the same things don’t happen next time.”
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Gibson was referring to re-entry — the process directed by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office that returned citizens to their homes — after last fall’s Category 2 storm made landfall in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 8. In Gibson’s opinion, it was a “cut-and-paste operation,” an afterthought that starkly contrasted the orderly evacuation ahead of Matthew.
And he says his re-entry experience — the lack of communication about how and when to return, and the delay he experienced before being allowed to do so — will factor into his decision to evacuate next time.
He’s not alone.
While others have more positive impressions of re-entry, perspectives such as Gibson’s matter, researchers say. People talk, confer — evacuation is, in part, a social decision.
And it’s one that can be influenced by public officials in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, when memories — positive and negative — are fresh, and the timing of the next storm is unknown.
“It’s hard enough to get people to leave,” said Jennifer Horney, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Texas A&M University who studies the public health impacts of disasters and the social aspects of citizens’ responses to them. “And we don’t want the re-entry process to be another reason people don’t.”
In a survey of evacuation rates during the 2004 hurricane season in Florida — one of the state’s worst, with six storms making landfall — researchers Stanley Smith and Chris McCarthy found that only a quarter of people evacuated at least one time. Shakara Brown and her team analyzed New York City residents’ evacuation behavior during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and found half of survey respondents didn’t leave.
How people experience re-entry could affect their decision to evacuate in the future, Horney said. Other variables include the forecast severity and projected path of an incoming storm, and the time that has passed between hurricanes.
The time between storms is one of the most important factors, she said. There’s a small window that might last until the start of the next hurricane season when public officials can leverage people’s “good experiences” — a smooth evacuation and re-entry, for example — to encourage them to leave for the next storm.
Conversely, if people had “bad experiences” — what they saw as unwarranted evacuations, or botched re-entries — officials can mitigate those by engaging with citizens, involving them in planning efforts, and fixing mistakes that were made.
In the immediate aftermath of Matthew, plenty of Beaufort County residents were outraged by long lines of traffic that backed up at barricades, and by a re-entry process an investigation by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette discovered was crafted on the fly, and further complicated by power struggles and communication breakdowns.
Angry Facebook comments — threats of “I won’t leave next time” — popped up alongside others that urged patience and thanked first responders for their work. Still other comments evinced confusion: “What do we need to do to come home?”
“The uncertainty of the (re-entry) timeline was very difficult for people who were trying to do the right thing and stay away,” part-time Hilton Head Island resident Scott Wyland told the newspapers recently.
Wyland was not among the evacuees who wound up stuck at roadblocks the day after the storm. But he was frustrated by the lack of timely communication from officials, and he hopes for “a clear re-entry plan” in the future.
“I want to make it clear that I appreciate the efforts of first responders,” he said. “They were keeping us safe. ... With some effort, they can fine-tune the process, but it was a learning experience for everyone.”
Wyland’s re-entry experience will not factor into his decision to leave for a future storm.
Nor will Lauren Ulrich’s.
Ulrich, of Bluffton, thought the process went smoothly — it encouraged her to evacuate in the future, she said. But she had the benefit of being able to stay with family in Macon, Ga., she said, and was able to delay her return to the area by several days.
Peoples’ perceived time away from home is another factor that can influence their evacuation decision, experts say. So are their financial resources, jobs, children and home type.
Gibson was able to afford two nights in a hotel after he was denied entrance to the county on the afternoon of Oct. 8, just hours after the storm had blown through.
He was understanding about the roadblock, he said. But he got frustrated as he sat in a room near Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport and, over the next two days, watched as people from coastal Georgia and Charleston returned home.
“I think it’s worth keeping in mind that people were going back to Tybee Island — a barrier island — a day before we were able to (return to Beaufort),” he said.
The need for a clear re-entry plan is about “trust,” he said. It amounts to a “social contract” between citizens and officials: Citizens are asked to trust officials’ request to evacuate, and officials are entrusted with returning evacuees home as quickly as possible.
Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said much the same thing: “(P)eople who had returned, or who didn’t leave, were sending pictures to their friends who had been waiting for 24 hours in a line parked beside the interstate with their car potentially running out of gas or electricity. They’re sending pictures of people playing Frisbees in the park, or people sitting outside of a restaurant having lunch. And they’re saying, why can’t they come home?
“And the pressure became so heavy on us. And people said: ‘If you ask, we’ll never evacuate again because we can’t trust you. You’re punishing us because we evacuated. The folks that didn’t evacuate are sitting at home and doing okay.’”
Will Gibson — an “advocate for getting out of town when a storm happens” — evacuate next time? It depends. But he said his experience with re-entry is a variable that “moves the needle in the direction of staying.”
And what about others like him — will they leave next time?
It depends, Horney said.
How strong is the hurricane? What’s its path? What are the damage projections?
It’s a decision they’ll likely re-evaluate as the next storm nears, she said.
And in her words, “People don’t need another reason to not evacuate.”
Projects reporter Kasia Kovacs contributed to this story.