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Stay or flee? Lessons from Hurricane Ivan evacuation

Ocean Springs — Like the other 330,000 or so residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, during Hurricane Ivan I had to decide whether to stay or flee.

Mandatory evacuations were called for low-lying areas of the Coast, and for people who lived in mobile homes. My house is high, and has survived Hurricanes Camille, Frederick, Elena and Georges. But I’m from Idaho, and even though I have now lived in Mississippi for 25 years, hurricanes still spook me. I decided to leave early Wednesday morning before the storm.

Now, I wonder if I made the right choice. And if it is the choice I would make in similar circumstances again. It looks like those storms could keep rolling on in this year, so it may not be long before that choice faces all of us on the Coast again.

I recall getting home to Ocean Springs after evacuating during Hurricane Georges in 1998. By the time I made it back to the Coast, neighbors all around who had stayed already had the hurricane debris in their yards picked up. I had left a blue jay feather near my front door under the carport, which turned out to be in the lee of the storm. Amazingly, the feather was still there when I returned — even though I had lost three large longleaf pines.

Ivan was headed towards making landfall at the Mississippi-Alabama state line when I made the decision to evacuate to Hattiesburg to my son’s apartment near the university. Several of my son’s friends from the Coast were already there when I arrived, and the kids were talking about evacuating farther out of harm’s way to Meridian.

I kept an eye on the storm track throughout the day, and nixed us going on to Meridian when the storm jogged to the east, and it looked like Hattiesburg would only catch the edge of the storm.

As it happened, Meridian got more impact from Ivan than Hattiesburg. And by the time Ivan had moved off the Coast, not just Meridian but other areas of north Mississippi and Alabama were getting hammered. A friend who evacuated to a state park in Grenada reported worse weather than I saw in Hattiesburg.

While I had some damage from Ivan to shingles on my roof, I had left a tent up at my home building site, and it fared fine during the storm. Even some blossoms on plants in my yard were unfazed.

The power was back on at my home in Ocean Springs at 9:30 a.m. the day Ivan passed through. In contrast, I know people in places as far inland as Birmingham, Ala., and Asheville, N.C., who were without power a lot longer. What has been amazing about all these hurricanes this year is how widespread the impacts have been from wind and flooding related to the storms.

Ivan’s evacuation was very orderly, and it was amazing to think about 100,000 plus vehicles carrying evacuees away from the coastline. It was sunny, and the traffic was so congested that people couldn’t go fast enough to get in bad wrecks. As a result, there were remarkably few accidents. In some previous storms, there have been more deaths from traffic accidents during the evacuation than deaths directly related to the hurricanes.

After the mandatory evacuation order came out Tuesday, the roads were clogged. There were reports of it taking five hours or six hours to get from Gulfport to Hattiesburg — normally a 1.5-hour drive. Evidently Hattiesburg and Jackson were big bottlenecks to the traffic flow. So when I took off at 6 a.m. Wednesday, I took the back roads. I traveled up Highway 57 north to Highway 98. The traffic was heavy, but moving along at 55 mph or so. After reaching Highway 98, I turned west towards Highway 49. But a couple of miles before the intersection with Highway 49, traffic stopped dead. And then just crawled along. After 20 minutes without getting a quarter of a mile, I backtracked to New Augusta, and took Highway 26 up to Highway 42 in Richton. There was very little traffic on either road. When I passed underneath Highway 49 and saw how slow the traffic was moving, I was really glad I’d taken the back roads option.

I could have taken an even better short cut as there is a back road paralleling 49 that goes from 98 into Hattiesburg. But I didn’t have a Forrest County map on hand, and couldn’t remember the route. While listening to the radio, I heard a woman who said an essential part of her hurricane preparations is a copy of the Back Roads Atlas of Mississippi. Best advice I heard during Ivan.

One thing I saw during the evacuation was a big surprise. It looked like a lot of people from the Coast were waiting out Ivan at convenience store parking lots in places like New Augusta. I mean, sure, most cars have air bags. But I really can’t imagine riding out a storm in the car. I had to wonder if these folks wouldn’t have been safer at home.

Taking the backroads

After the storm, I talked to Southern District Highway Commissioner Wayne Brown about the lessons learned from the evacuation. He agrees that more people need to take the back roads to avoid congestion on the main highways.

“We need to publish alternative routes,” Brown said. “Those people sitting out there on Highway 98, Highway 49 and Highway 59, all they needed was a little bit of knowledge. Increased coordination between local government and MDOT (Mississippi Department of Transportation) could relieve some of these problems by offering alternative routes. Each individual who is going to evacuate should have a state roadmap. And try to go where others don’t go. Know that the 49s, 59s and 98s are going to be jammed. The Hub City is that: a hub city. Go around it. Skirt it.”

Brown also advocates extending Highway 15, a north-south artery from I-10 to Highway 26 near Wiggins, through Forrest County to connect with the upper length of Highway 15 that runs from Beaumont to Laurel. Also, traffic engineers are studying improvements that could be made to relieve congestion in Hattiesburg. A bypass around the east side of Hattiesburg would be helpful, but other less expensive changes might also reap big dividends.

Another piece of advice Brown has is that if you have a boat and are going to evacuate, grease your trailer wheel bearings. He was amazed at how many broken down boat trailers he saw during the evacuation.

Brown has been through many hurricanes through the years, and his opinion is that if you live on the Coast in a secure house, well above the flood zone, and have no large trees that can fall on you, evacuation may not be necessary for smaller hurricanes.

“In my opinion, you are safer to stay in place,” Brown said. “I have done storm cleanup after Elena, Frederick, Camille and others. Even in Pass Christian during Hurricane Camille, there were houses that rode the storm out even though there were 195 mile-per-hour winds. Even a lot of mobile homes didn’t get damage from Elena and Camille. I would not recommend staying in a mobile home. But a sturdy, well-built house that has rode out hurricanes before or is built to modern code, I would stay in it unless I was ordered to evacuate.”

After the evacuation proved to be unnecessary for the hundreds of thousands of residents fleeing New Orleans the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Civil Defense officials voiced concerns that next time people might not evacuate. Personally, I intend to watch any future hurricanes very carefully, and likely will still leave for a category four or five storm that looks headed our way. But for smaller storms, I intend to stay put.

If a feather can make it through a hurricane okay, I should be able to, as well.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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