Hurricane Irma may yet miss most of Florida – even at this late hour she’s taken a more westward track away from Miami. But given the severity of the storm, and its uncertainty, state officials wisely ordered evacuations of south Florida. But now, the Tampa Bay Times reported that state senator and now gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala is openly questioning Governor Rick Scott‘s decision to order mass evacuations ahead of Hurricane Irma:
“I have lived in Florida for 50 years. We have hurricane season every year. We try to use good judgment,” Latvala said. ”I’m not sure that we haven’t overdone it a little bit … Do you have to close down the state four days before the storm gets here?” He said he has heard from constituents asking him, “Why are we doing this so early?”
Undoubtedly, Latvala was following his political instincts, informed by his own past experiences, but prompted by constituents who are almost certainly growing irritated with the hardships associated with a mass evacuation order: long lines for essential items, slow traffic, all under sunny skies that don’t even show a hint of the storm that is to come. Undoubtedly people will grumble about it.
But a man who wants to lead 21 million people, a man with Latvala’s experience, should know better, should know that the right reaction isn’t to second guess and join in the grumbling, but rather be a leader who helps make the most of decisions that have already been made, not work at cross-purposes with them. Jack Latvala should have avoided the controversy. Because in second-guessing the judgement call of state officials – particularly the man he hopes to replace in 2019, he has jeopardized his own chances to do so in five fundamental ways. Here’s a look at each:
1. Latvala’s comments demonstrate a lack of understanding of the storm’s potential impact
Over the past week, the landfall of Hurricane Irma has been tricky to predict, with the long range cone swinging wildly across the state, first targeting Key West, then Miami, then Palm Beach, with the latest track now heading more toward Latvala’s own home near Tampa. Throughout that time, one thing has remained constant: the sheer scale of what is now a massive Category 5 hurricane. As if that’s not enough, the storm’s predicted path, even as early as the time Latvala made his comments, showed a worst-case scenario for Florida: a direct hit on major population centers that then moves steadily north along I-75, sucking up warm water in the Everglades which will sustain its strength, and could even hammer both coasts with 100+ mph winds and heavy rains.
At this point, Irma doesn’t look like an isolated, single-city storm such as Hurricane Hermine last year, that state officials can deal with by shifting resources from one side of the state to the other. The emergency responders and resources of literally ever major population center from Miami to Jacksonville to Pensacola could be negatively impacted by flooding, wind damage, storm surge, or some combination of these. Tampa isn’t going to be able to send resources to Orlando, because Tampa will likely have plenty of its own problems to contend with.
2. Latvala’s comments demonstrate a lack of understanding of the mood of Florida’s citizens
As early as last weekend, a “subdued panic” had settled in as far north as Tallahassee, where residents quietly stocked up on bottled water and waited patiently in long lines for gasoline. Further south, things were less subdued. Some of the angst no doubt came from watching stories about Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Houston, where there simply wasn’t time for a mass evacuation as the shape-shifting storm swelled rapidly into a Category 4 hurricane. In Tallahassee and Florida’s east coast, memories of last year’s hurricanes, Hermine and Matthew, served as fresh reminders of what even smaller storms can do.
People are leaving South Florida not only because the governor ordered an evacuation, but because they see the same thing Scott sees: an unpredictable but life-threatening storm headed in our general direction. If that order wasn’t backed by a solid threat, we’d have an entirely different situation on our hands, with people revolting against Scott. But the threat is real. Irma is coming. We don’t know where it will hit quite yet, but by the time we do, it’ll be far too late to evacuate millions of panicked people.
Instead, Scott ordered a methodical, orderly evacuation that, for the most part, has proceeded according to a carefully laid plan. If Irma misses, most -but not all- people will rejoice, not blame Rick Scott for ordered them out of their homes.
3. Latvala’s comments demonstrate a lack of understanding how mass evacuations work
One look at Google Maps traffic and Latvala could have easily discerned why the governor ordered the evacuation to begin early. After four days, traffic exiting South Florida, now considerably reduced, appears to moving at normal speed, at least until it reaches Central Florida, where it then grinds to a halt as more people pack up to flee Irma:This is exactly what you’d want to see, areas that are likely to be impacted first are steadily clearing out of the immediate danger area, making it easier for rescue crews to move in. But it also illustrates the Herculean task of coordinating a mass population exodus along two primary roadways. Issuing an order to evacuate is not a decision that is made lightly, but it is one that absolutely must be made early, if at all possible. Had Scott waited until today to make a decision, the desperation would be palpable, the traffic jams unmanageable, and the consequences severe.
4. Latvala’s comments demonstrate a lack of confidence in the state’s emergency planners
Florida’s Division of Emergency Management is staffed with experts and professionals from a wide variety of disciplines – meteorologists, law enforcement, emergency personnel, military representatives, traffic engineers, chemical, electrical and logistics experts, just to name a few. All of that expertise sits in a single room – the Emergency Operations Center, monitoring data, reports and requests from assistance through an interconnected network with similar experts at the county, city and township level, all across the state. These experts communicate regularly with Governor Rick Scott, and make recommendations to him based on all available information at any given time.
Then there is Governor Rick Scott himself, a man that is well known for his methodical approach to problem solving and decision-making in emergency situations. The experts make recommendations, Scott makes the big decisions based on the best information availabe at the time. For Latvala to second guess Scott and Florida’s emergency planners is the height of ignorance and / or arrogance.
5. Latvala’s comments demonstrate a failure to calculate political risk
Putting all of the above aside, Latvala’s on-the-record statement to the state’s largest newspaper is breathtaking in its boldness, if nothing else. Because in making such a statement, Latvala is effectively gambling his credibility on the possibility that Hurricane Irma isn’t going to amount to much. And he’s also proving that if he was in charge, that he’d be willing to gamble people’s lives just so he doesn’t make a bad political decision.
Let’s assume for a moment that he ends up being right, and that Irma takes a sharp right at Cuba and swings out into the Atlantic Ocean, or swings out wide left and even misses the Panhandle, with no harm to Florida.
What does Latvala gain in that scenario by seconding guessing an evacuation order? Literally nothing. “Jack Latvala is a cool-under-pressure political leader who instinctively knows when to give evacuation orders,” said no newspaper ever. Latvala doesn’t have a crystal ball, and even if Florida gets lucky and Irma misses, everyone will know that Latvala himself got lucky with his guess. He knows as much (or perhaps as little) about Irma’s path as the hurricane experts who publish the latest storm track as soon as they calculate it.
Latvala may try to argue that Scott should have waited because of the unpredictability of the storm. Certainly if Irma misses and millions have fled north for nothing, Scott will be second-guessed by plenty of folks like Jack Latvala. There’s never a shortage of critics in those situations. Fortunately Scott is the type of leader who understands the risk of the decision he made to order the evacuation, and if wrong, he’s willing to live with the consequences. Scott is not the kind of leader who will gamble people’s lives just so he can avoid making a mistake that could hurt him politically.
So why would Jack Latvala jeopardize his gubernatorial campaign and his personal credibility by leveling tone-deaf criticism of state leaders – criticism that effectly means he is willing to gamble people’s lives – in the middle of a major potential crisis?
I don’t know the answer. And I’m not heading down to Tampa to find out.