The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 74.0°F | Partly Cloudy

Andrew's Low Death Toll Due to Improving Skill in Preparing for Disasters

By Malcolm Gladwell

The Washington Post

A week after it ripped through Florida and Louisiana, leaving 250,000 people homeless, Hurricane Andrew has left a puzzling -- if somewhat macabre -- question.

In another part of the world, at another time, a storm of Andrew's magnitude might well have left hundreds or even thousands dead. Instead it has so far resulted in a death toll nearing three dozen. How is it that we escaped worse?

Part of the answer, experts say, is simple luck: The storm took a fortunate turn away from Miami and away from New Orleans. Moreover, no crowded shelter was blown apart by high winds, and no bridge collapsed while jammed bumper to bumper.

But in large measure, the outcome is a tribute to the new skill and sophistication with which American society now predicts, prepares for and responds to natural disasters.

Andrew came in the wake of an earthquake in the Mojave desert earlier this year that measured 7.5 on the Richter scale and killed just one person, the massive Loma Prieta earthquake that shook a metropolitan area of six million and killed 63, and Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which killed 35 and devastated large parts of the Carolinas after reaching land north of Charleston.

In the case of Hugo, in fact, 22 of the 35 claimed by the storm actually died after it was over, electrocuted in accidents or killed in house fires when they fell asleep with candles burning before the electricity came back on. Disaster experts expect a similar pattern with Andrew. We are at the stage, it seems, where it is not the wind and rain itself but the attempt to re-organize our own complicated environments in the aftermath of disaster that poses the greatest threat to life and limb.

In a strange way, some say, that is progress.

"We haven't licked Mother Nature, but we have come to terms with it" said Patrick Michaels, a climatologist at the University of Virginia. "We understand the limitations of the environment and we are adapting our behavior to it. We know well enough to get out of the way."

"I think we should be proud," said Dennis Mileti, a sociologist and disaster expert at Colorado State University.

The story of how Andrew could have been so much worse starts, naturally, with simple good fortune.

It could have hit major metropolitan areas directly, with far more people vulnerable to disaster -- the elderly, the indigent, the homeless -- live. It could have hit southwest Florida, where the logistics of evacuation are far more complicated. In the Miami area, those seeking refuge from Andrew had only a short trip to get to higher ground. By contrast, so much of the state's southwestern corner around Ft. Myers and Naples is in low-lying territory likely to be inundated by a major hurricane, that state planners estimate that evacuation would have to start at least 60 hours in advance of a storm to get all the residents of the region to safety. Who knows how that would have worked?

Andrew could have been a big storm like Carla in 1961, which stretched 50 miles from its eye to the maximum winds on its fringe. Instead it was about 11 miles. It could have been slow, like Carla, which crawled along the Texas gulf coast at 5 miles per hour, lingering to do the utmost damage. Instead it moved crisply, sometimes approaching 20 mph. And when it hit Louisiana, it could have been as mean or meaner as it was when it touched down on Florida. But by then, for all the damage it did, Andrew had lost its nerve. Its winds blew as much offshore as onshore, and its pressure suddenly changed, reducing the potential size of the storm surge.

Nonetheless, Andrew still had the potential for much greater loss of life. Bad or inadequate forecasting can turn even a modest storm into a killer. Hurricane Audrey, for example, killed nearly 400 people in the United States alone 35 years ago because, in days before satellites, residents of the gulf coast were not given sufficient warning to move to safety.

Andrew was different. Using a new, sophisticated Doppler radar system, the National Weather Service charted the course of the hurricane from the South Atlantic into the Gulf of Mexico with extraordinary accuracy, facilitating the evacuation effort. Landfall was predicted within 30 miles.

Beyond luck and improved prediction, disaster experts regard as highly successful the fact that so many people were convinced to heed the storm warnings once they were issued. This was no small accomplishment. In 1969, the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi were told to flee from Hurricane Camille and 256 who decided to ignore the warnings perished.

In the face of such warnings, sociologists have observed, Americans don't like to leave their homes. Why, then, did millions of the inhabitants of Florida and Louisiana -- many of them members of the most skeptical subgroups -- dutifully drive out of harm's way or go to shelters?

One reason is that the natural resistance to warning was overcome by repeating the storm warning over and over again in many different contexts and in multiple news media. This was critical. When people first hear a warning, psychologists say, their first instinct is not to act but to seek more information. How much they respect the original source of the information is irrelevant. Credibility comes from repetition.

There were other contributing factors, experts note. Poorer people tend to distrust government statements -- which is why it was important that warnings about Andrew came from sources such as the Red Cross as well as government experts. Newspapers make more of an impact than television, because they impart more information and can be carried around and read over and over, which is why it was important that the warnings started early enough in the day for newspapers to print them in the next morning's editions.