Alabama wants earlier storm evacuations
GULF SHORES, Ala. (AP) - Unable to open new public shelters on
the coast in time for hurricane season, state leaders are prodding
Alabama's coastal counties to make evacuation decisions earlier
than in past years so residents will have more time to seek higher
ground if a major storm threatens the Gulf of Mexico.
Gov. Robert Bentley has advocated opening additional shelters
along the coast to reduce the number of people who need to flee
ahead of hurricanes, but budgets are tight. Federal officials
approved less than 20 percent of the $2 million grant that two
cities requested for public shelters in Baldwin County, Alabama's
leading tourist area, officials say.
So with hurricane season starting Friday, officials tell The
Associated Press that state leaders as recently as this week have
encouraged local officials to make decisions to evacuate as far as
two days ahead of a hurricane threat. That's different from the 24
to 36-hour window sought in past years.
Mitchell Sims, emergency management director in Baldwin County,
said quicker decisions are good, but they aren't always possible.
"There are so many factors in there. Every storm is different.
What are the impacts going to be after people leave?" he said.
Bentley publicly discussed the idea of scaling back coastal
evacuations after the deadly tornado outbreak of April 27, 2011.
With millions of federal dollars flowing into the state for
shelters, some of the money should be used on the coast to lessen
the need for mass evacuations like the ones that occurred during
Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005, he said.
"It's a new way of thinking," Bentley said at the time.
Sims said the towns of Robertsdale and Spanish Fort sought $2
million total for hardened shelters that could be used during
twisters or hurricanes - which typically generate tornadoes - but
the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved only $339,000 for
the work. With the cities having to provide matching funds to fill
the funding gaps, he said it was unclear whether either project
could go forward.
Bentley spokesman Jeremy King said the governor still supports
the idea of building additional shelters on the coast, as do
"But there may be an issue with how much money is available in
comparison with how much need exists in the counties," he said.
With a population of 185,000 and most of the state's beach
resorts, Baldwin County already has 12 total shelters, including
four for the general public. Opening any or all of them even a day
earlier than in the past would cost the county additional money for
food, security, utilities and other needs, Sims said.
"If we need to do that for the safety of our people, we'll do
it," he said.
The state said public shelters can accommodate as many as 45,000
people in Alabama, but many families stay in hotels or motels when
forced to leave home so shelters rarely fill up.
The director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, Art
Faulkner, said improved forecasting makes it possible to make
evacuation decisions sooner than in the past. Only the governor can
order a mandatory evacuation, and such decisions are made in
consultation with local officials.
"A lot of it is storm driven; the factors of the storm, the
category," he said. "Hopefully we can better make decisions in
those early hours that would not put our citizens in the position
of having to evacuate when tropical-force winds are hitting the
Enjoying a sunny May day on the beach at Gulf Shores, Andrew
Hunt dreaded the thought of a hurricane as he played in the surf on
a wake board.
"That's the last thing we need," said Hunt, 24, of Pensacola,
Friday, June 1 2012, 11:39 AM CDT
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)