Hurricane Evacuations: Should You Stay or Should You Go?

July 3, 2024

Dark and cloudy skies with an official sign pointing to the hurricane evacuation route.

I recently finished reading The Displacements by Bruce Holsinger, a novel about the world’s first Category 6 hurricane, a storm that devastates south Florida and Houston. While the book follows many characters who eventually, for whatever reason, end up at a FEMA megashelter, the main character, a wealthy physician’s wife, and her family experience their own personal apocalypse that’s partly due to the fact that they didn’t plan properly. The assumption that technology will always be readily available and at your fingertips also plays a part, but I don’t want to give anything away…

While reading the book, my mind drifted at times, of course, to hurricanes we’ve already experienced.

As children on Long Island, we both lived through Hurricane Gloria, a category 3 storm that made landfall on Long Island with sustained winds of 85 mph. The storm hit on September 27, 1985, and considering school started the Tuesday after Labor Day, most kids enjoyed a break of about two weeks or so right after the academic year had started, which is kind of a win when you’re 10 years old. Trees were knocked down, we lost power, the beaches were eroded, but I don’t remember much else.

Then, Adam and I got married on September 18, 2004, the same day the remnants of Hurricane Ivan came to Long Island, and so began our relationship with “I Storms” (more on that in a minute). We had about three weather systems in less than 8 hours that day. It was incredibly hot and humid for our photos in the morning. Then, right as guests were supposed to arrive and we were to be married in a vineyard, a tropical storm inundated us with rain. Water was actually pouring through the ceiling in the bridal suite at our venue. They say it’s good luck if it rains on your wedding day, so I think we’re set for life. Once the system moved through, it was like fall arrived, and it was beautiful.

We moved to Florida permanently in 2007, and though we had a few tropical storms, things didn’t get serious until Hurricane Irma in 2017…then Hurricane Ian in 2022…and most recently Hurricane Idalia in 2023. See what I mean? All of these major storms start with the letter I.

Irma was the worst as far as our experience in Clearwater, but in the grand scheme of things, it was not bad at all. We prepared for the storm and evacuated, but probably not as well as we should have. Luckily, we sustained little damage and our power was back the next day.

Ian was supposed to make a direct hit. We took this one very seriously, evacuated, and texted with all our Florida friends scattered about the state. Our Ft. Myers friends wished us luck and told us to stay safe. We awoke the next morning to see the “storm had turned” (get used to that phrase if you move here – you want the storm to turn away from you, but it’s heartbreaking to wish for because you know the danger and destruction are heading for someone else). We made it through relatively unscathed; Fort Myers Beach is STILL a scene of devastation. Our friends didn’t have time to get out before the storm hit, but luckily, they live inland a bit. Though their power came back relatively quickly, they were without water for two weeks!

Idalia was the latest storm to threaten us. Once again, we watched and waited to see when it would make its turn, and it did so north of us in an area less populated than Tampa Bay, which is good, but the storm surge of 7-12 feet inundated the coast up in what is called The Big Bend area. We live about two hours away from the center of the storm, and we had flooding too. Because we had evacuated, a neighbor sent a text the next morning saying, “We have Bay (meaning Tampa Bay), flowing onto our property.” I can only imagine what would have happened if we had sustained a direct hit.

It’s all scary stuff, and we don’t mess around. When the warnings start coming, we listen. But that’s not the case for everyone.

A 2023 hurricane prep survey by AAA revealed that many Floridians opt NOT to prepare for storms. In fact, 20% of those asked said they do nothing at all to prepare for hurricane season. When it comes to evacuation orders, 24% said they simply ignore them. Of those who do heed them, 56% say the hurricane needs to be at least a Category 3 storm to make them leave, and almost 10% said that the only way they’d leave is if the storm is a Category 5.

Storm surge watches and warnings are serious and indicate what could be a life-threatening situation coming your way. Just because where you live has never flooded before doesn’t mean it won’t flood ever. Heed the warnings. We’ve evacuated three times and have been very grateful to return home all three times to a relatively unflooded neighborhood; I don’t think of it as a waste to have left only for nothing to happen.

I often hear people say they don’t evacuate because they don’t live on the first floor of their condo or because they have a second story on their home. You may be protected during the storm, but when the event is over and your neighborhood is swamped with water, what are you going to do? And don’t forget that sometimes the surge comes after the storm when it’s high tide, and this can affect communities that didn’t sustain a direct hit. Shore Acres in St. Pete is almost 200 miles south of where Idalia made landfall, but the neighborhood saw significant flooding for days after the storm.

Some people say they choose to stay in case something happens to the house during the storm. This has never made sense to me. What could someone possibly do if the roof is ripped off or water comes into the home? This is why we have insurance, and speaking of that topic, homeowner’s insurance does not cover flood damage; flood insurance is a separate policy, so be sure to speak to your insurance agent to make sure you have adequate coverage. Store your insurance and flood policy numbers, as well as your insurance providers’ contact information, on your phone. Remember the book I told you about at the start? The main character would have been saved some grief if she had done this (but she didn’t have her phone with her anyway…ugh! I’m giving too much away! Just read the book).

The moral of the story is that you should go, and you don’t have to go far to evacuate. It can be a few minutes inland to a friend’s house, shelter, or hotel that’s not in an area prone to storm surge.

Before you leave, take a video of the interior and exterior of your home to document all your belongings. Move slowly through each room and describe each item and your valuables in good detail. This doesn’t need to be a professional video. You can do it with your phone but be sure to email the video to yourself. The video does you no good if your phone is lost in the chaos (again, read the book!), or you accidentally delete the tour.

And whatever you do, do not evacuate and leave your pets behind! Make sure your pet is microchipped and that you have a picture of you and your pet together to document ownership. Pictures also allow others to assist you if you and your pet get separated (I hate to say it, but this situation is also in the book). If you’re taking your pet to a shelter, you will need your pet’s medical records, and your pet will need to have all the necessary vaccinations.

Hurricane season runs from June 1st through November 30th, and the 2024 season is supposed to be a busy one. The one good thing about hurricanes is that we usually have plenty of warning. With a little preparation and a plan, you should be able to weather anything that comes our way.