Community muscle memory is the key to responding to the worst of hurricanes

Eren Erman Ozguven, Director, Resilient Infrastructure and Disaster Response Center
September 28, 2022
Eren Erman Ozguven, Ph.D., Director, Resilient Infrastructure and Disaster Response Center

When I first arrived in Florida in 2013, Florida State University hadn’t experienced a hurricane for decades, and the Florida Panhandle wasn’t hit by a major storm for many years. But Hurricane Hermine hit Tallahassee in 2016, and Hurricane Michael made landfall around Mexico Beach in 2018. Since then, we have learned the importance of muscle memory in successfully responding to these extreme events.

Today, cities and communities are more prepared than ever before with more concrete plans and guidelines drawn from the unfortunate experience of these hurricanes.

The Tampa Bay area has not been directly hit by a hurricane since 1921 and so has no muscle memory. This means the challenges that Hurricane Ian may pose are serious problems. Florida must ensure that the lessons learned in the Panhandle and elsewhere can be put to use to help Tampa Bay and other communities across the state that lie in the storm’s path.

There is a lot of uncertainty as to where Hurricane Ian will hit and how broad an area it will impact. However, we know that the storm will be destructive. It will be both a water and wind event. The storm surge will be dangerous in coastal areas, and trees and debris will fall on buildings and infrastructure (e.g., roadways and power lines), whether by the coast or inland.

We need to make sure people have sufficient information to make informed decisions on whether to evacuate or to shelter-in-place. They need to know if their houses can withstand the strength of this monstrous hurricane. They need to understand if flooding or the storm surge will affect their neighborhoods. They need to know which kinds of shelters are available — regular, special needs (SpNS) or pet-friendly. We do not want people with dogs or cats being turned away from regular no-pets shelters and not knowing where else to go.

We need to make sure our vulnerable populations such as the elderly are taken care of. Evacuation is a reality now; there is a mandatory evacuation order for the coastal areas of Tampa Bay. Evacuation, stressful for everyone, can be a nightmare for an older adult or a person with special needs or disabilities. We need to plan ahead to reduce this stress and give them extra time to evacuate so as to keep them away from congested roadways and not struggling with gasoline outages.

At a National Science Foundation-funded emergency-preparedness workshop earlier this year at FSU, researchers determined that we should focus on community centers, libraries, churches and other facilities that can serve as resilience hubs in times of calm by providing a mixture of physical and digital resources. Development of resilience hubs will help communities prepare in advance for the worst of Florida’s weather.

One example of a library-turned-resilience-hub is a National Science Foundation-funded project in partnership with Calhoun County, which was drastically impacted by Hurricane Michael (Libraries as Resilience Hubs).

With these functioning resilience hubs, we can build the muscle memory against hurricanes and not lose that knowledge over years, even if an area does not experience a hurricane for a long time. That is the key to make sure our communities are resilient against the catastrophic events that Hurricane Ian is now threatening to bring to Tampa Bay and other communities.