Dolman: Storm evacuation orders aren't just suggestions
On Staten Island, the New York Police Department made more than 1,100 water rescues in the first few days after superstorm Sandy -- mostly in areas where residents had been ordered to evacuate.
Officers pulled children and adults from cars caught in the storm surge and risked electrocution as they waded through knee-deep water to take stranded residents to shelter.
In Long Beach, officials wound up imposing a curfew on the 15,000 to 20,000 residents who stayed behind. Residents who stayed on Fire Island ended up without power in a place full of hazmat problems and unsafe structures.
In New York City, maybe half of the 375,000 people living in low-lying Zone A complied with the orders of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to leave.
"We always go back and say, 'What could have been done differently? What could have been done better?' " Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the media during a visit to Staten Island a few days ago.
"The issue of those who either can't or won't abide by those orders -- that is a question we have to address."
Whatever the problem is, it's not a failure to communicate. That would be easy to fix. Rather, it's a failure to convince.
Sometimes the problem involves people who have no place to go but hate the idea of a city shelter. Others won't leave pets behind. Some are shut-ins. And many are just skeptical about the warnings. All of them wind up taking a very large risk.
As a resident of Zone A myself, I know something about this. Bloomberg issued his evacuation order the day before Sandy hit. Within minutes of his announcement, the NYC Office of Emergency Management sent a message to my phone saying I had to vacate my apartment in lower Manhattan. Con Edison called shortly after that to say the company might shut down the power in our building as a precaution.
I understood the potential for trouble. We were just a few blocks from the East River and not too far from the Hudson. But when I jammed into the elevator, only half my neighbors were carrying suitcases and heading for higher ground, while the other half were heading out to buy groceries, water and party supplies.
More than a few thought the fuss was foolish. One woman noted that building management was only encouraging -- not forcing -- us to leave. Everyone remembered the 2011 evacuation for Tropical Storm Irene, which in our neighborhood never lived up to its billing.
I really thought about staying. A little voice in my head kept whispering that we were going to wake up in a hotel more than a hundred miles inland the next day while my colleagues -- clearly built of sturdier stuff -- were driving into work in the sunshine.
Still, we packed and headed upstate.
We haven't seen our apartment since. The place sustained critical damage from a nasty mix of saltwater and fuel oil rushing into the basement. The elevator machinery and electrical systems were wrecked. I heard the staff went through the high-rise floor by floor, banging on doors and making sure everyone was out.
Later they went to each apartment and emptied the rotting food from our refrigerators. The place now stands dark, empty and forlorn. It won't be habitable for months.
I hope Napolitano and local officials come up with a better way to persuade the doubters to evacuate the next time the order is given.
The safety of our first-responders is one good reason to do that. Common sense is another. Sandy should have taught us something. We can't say we haven't been warned.
Joseph Dolman was deputy editorial page editor for New York Newsday.