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A Category 5 Decision: The Complexities of Ordering Hurricane Evacuations

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The costs of errors drive the action threshold.

Local and state officials in Texas and Florida recently confronted consequential evacuation decisions in the face of the approaching hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but responses to the decision-making process and communication efforts have been mixed. Florida officials have been widely praised for their timely, well-communicated, and decisive action; whereas, Texas officials have been criticized for contributing to public confusion by offering conflicting advice to residents. The complexities such officials most likely considered as the storms approached are laid out with extensive granularity in a 2014 study done by NYU Stern Professors JP Eggers and Zur Shapira.
 
In “Trade-offs in a Tempest: Stakeholder Influence on Hurricane Evacuation Decisions,” Eggers, Shapira and Florida Atlantic University’s Karen Dye compile and analyze data based on eight storms making landfall in Florida during 2004-2005, including Hurricane Katrina, and document landfall outcomes and evacuation decisions for 67 Florida counties.  To investigate the effect of stakeholder pressures on evacuation decision making, they construct a model of inputs choices, outcomes, and how decision-makers’ prior experience affects their choices.
 
Every evacuation decision, according to the authors, involves a balancing of stakeholder interests, and the costs of errors of either commission – an unnecessary order to evacuate – or omission – no evacuation but a direct hit – vary disproportionately by stakeholder group. “The costs of errors drive the action threshold,” they write, and those costs are driven in part by the officials’ consideration of stakeholder preferences.
 
The authors’ analysis leads to five propositions that integrate various nuances of decision-making, behavioral theory, and stakeholder considerations – for instance, time to expected landfall, political backlash, or copycat decisions by smaller counties that could serve to deflect blame in the case of a mistaken call. The concern that decision makers use hurricane evacuations as a stage for political posturing is real.
 
When this article was written, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma had yet to occur. But the authors recognized then that population density along the typical landfall areas had increased enormously, along with the scientific consensus that hurricane activity would continue to increase. These trends put evacuation decision-making front and center and necessitate policy changes to address concerns. Such changes, the authors suggest, might include making the decision-making process more transparent, to avoid potential inefficiencies resulting from elected officials caring more about their own political futures than the needs of the community, or establishing an official decision-making committee that would include multiple stakeholder opinions and assuage concerns about overriding recommendations.