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Harvey lessons: Would South Florida be ready for massive evacuations?

Posted at 5:36 PM, Aug 31, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-01 04:37:17-04

The biggest rainstorm in the history of the continental United States has claimed the lives of at least 37 and forced thousands into shelters.

As Hurricane Irma is strengthening on the Atlantic, many are wondering how ready South Florida would be to deal with mass evacuations.

RELATED: More Harvey coverage | Photos

“Right now our capacity during a hurricane is about 50,000 people that we can shelter,” Mary Blakeney with the EOC said.

That number is a far cry from the 1.4 million Palm Beach County residents. But Blakeney said during past hurricanes only a small fraction of the population is asked to evacuate.

A similar situation in Martin County.

“We don’t believe we’re going to have all of Martin County come to a shelter,” Daniel Wouters, Division Chief of the Martin County Emergency Management said. “If we did it would definitely be challenging.”

Many residents, like Judy Browning from Stuart, decide to leave the area before a major hurricane.

“There is no point in staying,” Browning said. “Being cooped up in the house, not knowing what’s going on, it wasn’t worth it for me.”

Browning had stayed during Hurricane Jeanne and Francis in 2004 and was left each time without power for up to two weeks. But it wasn’t the inconvenience that made her decide to leave for future hurricanes.

“The uncertainty made me realize you don’t know if a tree is going to fall or a tornado is going to hit,” Browning said.

Martin County has four main shelters and a special needs shelter and they partner with the school district.

Waters said it’s easier to have several smaller shelters rather than one big one, like the Superdome in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s definitely a challenge for us to ensure the security and at the same time secure the needs for that many people,” Wouters said.

Officials urge everyone to start preparing for a major hurricane now.

“Do your preparedness plan now,” Blakeney said. “It’s so important to know where you’re going to go.”

Blakeney also warns about complacency, especially after Hurricane Matthew didn’t make landfall last year.

“It’s important to not judge how you’re going to prepare for the next storm based on how you were impacted during the last because it could be very different,” Blakeney said.

Officials in both counties said they’re watching Hurricane Irma very closely.