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Irma Hits Florida: Evacuation Orders Mean Little If You Can’t Get Out

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As Hurricane Irma began churning through the Florida Keys early Sunday, some of the surrounding news coverage pointed to the stark difference between residents who were evacuating before the storm and those who couldn’t—and highlighted the inadequacy of the state’s emergency preparedness plans.

If you have been ordered to evacuate, you need to leave now,” Governor Rick Scott warned [1] yesterday. “Do not wait. Evacuate. Not tonight, not in an hour. You need to go right now.” But with northbound highways clogged, gas and water in short supply, and stranded motorists out in the open, many Floridians were left to hunker down and cross their fingers.

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On The Lily News, former TV producer and stay-at-home mom Darlena Cunha explains why she won’t be leaving her home in Gainesville.

“Florida has only two main roads: interstates 95 and 75,” she writes. “They are parking lots, and have been for days. People are sitting in their vehicles, completely stopped on four-lane highways, running out of gas. There are no exits on these roads for scores of miles at a time. Once you get on a Florida highway, you are not getting off. You’re stuck. So, my family’s choices are: We stay here in our flimsily-built house, made of sheet rock and plywood; or we hop on an unmoving highway and risk running out of gas closer to the coast, with only our car for protection.”

Even if it were realistic for her family to move, “we would further clog those roads for the people in South Florida who need to get to safety, too. At least I’m inland. Irma is going to blast right over us, but she can’t bury us in rising seawater. Miami needs the roads. We’d better stay off them to keep others alive.”

But conditions are increasingly dire for those left behind, Cunha writes. Cities like Gainesville, Orlando, and Miami are out of gas. Bottled water supplies ran out days ago. There’s no more plywood to board up windows, no more Tupperware tubs to pack up valuables.

Cunha credits Scott—whose administration famously prohibited [3] references to climate change or global warming in state publications—with “the best of intentions” in issuing mandatory evacuation orders. But “you can’t tell millions upon millions of people to evacuate without giving them any real way to do so,” she notes.

Meaningful evacuation would have meant public transport, safe shelters along the way, medical help and facilities throughout, and safe shelter, food, water, and sanitary supplies on the other side of it all. For free. Because evacuating is expensive: You need gas and a reliable vehicle. You need good health to make a slow-moving, anxiety-inducing journey with thousands of other people surrounding you at every turn. You need money to buy supplies and emergency equipment, and to miss work.” In a state where [4] “it’s possible to be fired from your job if you don’t show up to work due to a hurricane,” she adds, “being prepared is a luxury, and it’s not always possible [5].

Cunha’s account stood in sharp contrast to the experience of evacuees who could normally afford to charter a private jet from Florida to New York for US$14,000 to $15,000, and are now paying $20,000 to get out of the state.

With commercial flights booked or cancelled, and the roads clogged with traffic, private jet companies said demand Wednesday and this week is shaping up to double or triple the usual,” CNBC reports [6]. “While this is normally a slow time of year, they said calls and bookings are more like a Super Bowl or U.S. Open golf day, with hundreds of wealthy flyers trying to book flights out.

“I think the technical term is ‘off the charts,'” said XOJET CEO Bradley Stewart. “This is the time when private aviation really proves its value.”

Even with a record hurricane bearing down on the state, and even for people with the cash on hand to pay for the trip, the executive jet companies are mostly “trying to take care of their top clients first,” CNBC says. “Without a strong relationship with the company, it’s going to be tough” for desperate evacuees to get a seat, Stewart said. But South Florida-based JetSmarter was offered available seats to the public, with 750 passengers booked to leave the state between last Wednesday and Friday.

“We’re a membership club,” said [7] Chief Business Officer Ronn Torossian. “We’re opening this up because we think that obviously people need to get out of Florida. We’re happy to get a few hundred people more out of the danger,” and “if we have seats open we want to open it up to a wider audience.”

One of the high-profile evacuees was none other than shock radio host Rush Limbaugh, who obliquely announced [8] he was leaving after previously urging his listeners in Florida to ignore official warnings. Donald Trump’s “Winter White House” at Mar-a-Lago was also ordered [9] to evacuate Friday.