Hurricane Irma was over and the Monday after the storm all Leola Maedell wanted to do was go home.
The elderly Little River resident had been at the red metal picnic table outside Miami Edison Senior High School for four hours, waiting on the buses that would take her from the shelter back to her neighborhood.
Maedell was hungry. The shelter meals were small, and before the storm, she hadn’t been able to travel to buy supplies for herself. And after two nights trying to sleep sitting up — the county doesn’t provide cots at general population hurricane shelters — Maedell’s surgically repaired knees were swollen and growing more painful with each minute she spent waiting for a ride.
But waiting was the only option for her and the 65 other car-less evacuees at Edison. Until buses promised by Miami-Dade County arrived, they were stuck — trapped in a hurricane evacuation system that got people where they needed to go but was plagued by inefficiencies and communication problems.
For Maedell, that system caused literal pain.
As minutes of waiting ticked toward another hour, she leaned precariously on her walker, turned sideways and eased her legs onto the picnic table bench, hoping a change of position would help.
“I don’t want to go to any more shelters,” Maedell said, near tears. “I don’t have faith in them anymore.”
Communication problems complicate evacuations
Under county emergency plans, people who don’t or can’t drive have several options for evacuating before a hurricane. If possible, they’re encouraged to seek shelter with family or friends because that lessens the logistical challenges of getting to and from a safe place to stay.
But for people who need to go to public shelters, the county has an emergency bus system. It begins with a list of pickup sites from which people are taken to general population hurricane shelters. If a shelter fills up, the buses go on to others.
“Once you’re evacuating, you could be anywhere in the county,” said Alice Bravo, director of Miami-Dade’s Department of Transportation and Public Works.
Shelters open in waves, she said, so car-less evacuees often end up at the shelters outside their neighborhoods or cities.
“Somebody we may have picked up in Cutler Bay might end up at a high school in Doral,” Bravo said.
After the storm has passed, staff at the shelters take a headcount of who needs bus transportation. They communicate that information to the county emergency operations center, which deploys buses to take evacuees back to their neighborhoods — or, depending on where they live, to staging sites from which they catch other buses.
Bravo said that system worked pretty well, if slowly, after Irma. She said the delays were due to power outages at bus maintenance facilities — “it’s slower fueling with the generators” — and because the county and its partners had to clear debris from roads before the buses could run.
“It was a longer wait than we expected,” said Patricia Lynch, who waited with her 5-year-old son Xavi for post-storm transportation from Edison. But “because of the debris, it wasn’t a surprise. You could see from outside the shelter the wind had blown so much debris around.”
But, Lynch said, communication should’ve been much clearer on the evacuation pick-up zones and procedures.
“They cost us a lot of time and energy,” she said.
When she decided to evacuate with Xavi from their home in Little Havana, Lynch didn’t know where to go. She said she called the evacuation hotline and was told (incorrectly, it turned out) that regular bus service was canceled and they could catch an evacuation bus to a shelter. She was directed to the intersection of SW 32nd Avenue and Eighth Street — about three miles from her house.
Carrying their supplies, she and Xavi walked.
"That was a long journey. He kept soldiering on; I kept pushing him," she said.
But, Lynch said, no one told her that to catch an evacuation bus, she had to go to a hurricane evacuation pickup stop instead of a regular bus stop. When she arrived at the intersection, there were no evacuation buses in sight. Lynch waited a bit, then called 311 and was told evacuation buses were en route.
After waiting an hour, Lynch said she called again and was finally told she needed to go to the evacuation bus stop.
And then, “our evacuation sign had been covered over by palm trees,” she said. “We found it with the help of the 311 guy.”
In the end, she said, she and Xavi didn’t evacuate via bus. Instead, a driver who saw Lynch and her son waiting in the dark called 911. Police arrived around 10 p.m. and contacted a municipal worker who drove Lynch, Xavi and another man who’d also waited for hours to one shelter that was full, and ultimately to Edison.
“It was very much like they [the county] hadn’t done this before,” Lynch said. She said along the way, despite having been told regular bus service was canceled, she spotted and talked with the driver of a regular Route 8 bus running on a Sunday schedule.
According to evacuation procedures listed on the county website, "If a designated Emergency Evacuation Bus Pick-Up site is not located near you, regular Miami-Dade Transit bus service will continue and residents can utilize regular routes to get to an evacuation bus pick-up site."
Special challenges for vulnerable evacuees
Heading into her fifth hour outside Miami Edison, Leola Maedell explained how she arrived at the high school. A notice from apartment managers said the elevators — which Maedell needs because of her bad knees — would be shut down on Saturday. A second notice said plans had changed and the elevators would instead be closed Friday.
Maedell said she got that notice Friday morning.
“I got panicky,” she said.
Maedell’s home health aide was busy with her own storm preparations and hadn’t helped Maedell stock up on food. Maedell doesn’t drive, so she said she called 311 and eventually a police officer arrived.
“He told me everything was going to be all right and that I’d get what I needed because of my disability,” she said. She said the officer drove her to Miami Northwestern Senior High School, but that shelter was full, so Maedell was transferred to Edison.
“When you’re ready to go back home, call me,” she remembered the officer saying.
The morning after Irma, as the hours continued to drag by, she did call.
“He said he was real busy,” Maedell said. “He said I could call around… because he was doing something else.”
For people who are elderly, or have disabilities or medical conditions, the county’s Special Transportation Service provides pickup options like wheelchair-accessible vans and buses, said Bravo, the transportation director. The service operates in conjunction with the county Emergency Evacuation Assistance Program, which helps medically vulnerable people evacuate to special needs shelters. Both the STS and the EEAP require pre-registration.
“The key thing is being part of the program,” said Curt Sommerhoff, Miami-Dade’s emergency management director. “People need to get pre-registered so we can understand how to use our limited assets to meet the needs of the population.”
He said the county informs residents about evacuation assistance through home health care providers and the Florida Department of Health branch in Miami-Dade. But, he added, Irma made clear that some people who could have used extra help didn’t pre-register.
“One of the challenges with vulnerable populations is if they’re vulnerable day-to-day, disasters only magnify that,” Sommerhoff said. “We’ve got to do a better job day-to-day.”
Both Sommerhoff and Bravo acknowledged a new vulnerability is being without regular internet service since much of the information about emergency evacuation procedures is primarily available online. They recommended the county 311 line as an alternative, and Sommerhoff said the county is working on partnerships with community organizations to help communicate evacuation information.
As for the delays at Edison, Sommerhoff echoed comments last month by County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, saying internal communications on shelter openings and closings need to improve.
“Shelters closing and pushing people outside before transportation gets there; if that happened, that should be fixed,” Sommerhoff said.
Looking forward: Officials want local evacuations
Mayor Carlos Gimenez and officials involved in emergency planning say they want to help people evacuate locally. In an ideal scenario, Gimenez said, residents would be able to take shelter in storm-proof buildings within a few miles of their homes.
Officials said they think local evacuations could help mitigate the evacuation issues exposed during Irma. They said problems stemmed from a heavy reliance on cars among those who have them, and a public transit system that hasn’t expanded to serve the needs of a growing population.
For evacuees with cars, a massive northward exodus on Interstate 75, Interstate 95 and Florida’s Turnpike resulted in serious gas shortages and roads like parking lots. Officials said they think getting people who fled via highways to instead evacuate locally — perhaps in hotels or Airbnbs — might help address congestion on roads.
For car-less evacuees during Irma, stocking up on food and water and carrying supplies to designated evacuation pickup points was difficult because of the so-called “first-mile, last-mile problem.” That’s when a public transit user has to walk an uncomfortable distance — often defined as more than a quarter-mile — to reach the nearest transit stop. It’s what Patricia Lynch and her son Xavi experienced during their three-mile odyssey to the evacuation bus site.
Officials say they want to expand public transit along six major corridors within Miami-Dade County and reduce the financial stress of preparing for a hurricane. They say improvements in those two areas would make sheltering within the county easier for car-less and otherwise vulnerable residents.
“Certainly the biggest risks were to some of our lowest-income communities, our elderly or physically vulnerable,” said Jane Gilbert, chief resilience officer for the city of Miami. “We had extended power outages and… potentially loss of work time and access to food.”
“By addressing some of those underlying stresses, we can be more resilient, more able to bounce back.”
Home at last
It ultimately took six hours for buses to arrive at Edison. Patricia Lynch and her son Xavi boarded one for Little Havana — and Lynch said they quickly discovered the drop-off point was farther from their house than the stop to which they’d been directed before the storm.
“If I get home and I’m in a flood or it’s uninhabitable or the road is impassable, I need to know where we’re going,” Lynch remembered telling staff who were helping people board the bus. “How are we getting there, and do we have to walk 37 blocks back to that same evacuation bus stop?”
She said she was told 311 was operational if there was a problem with her house. The bus driver ultimately dropped her and Xavi off on a road closer to their home, which escaped major storm damage.
Leola Maedell never even got on a bus. Because of her walker and her knees, county staff called a car for her to share with another disabled woman who needed transportation to Northwest Miami-Dade.
Waiting for her ride, Maedell said what she experienced during Irma makes her doubt she’ll evacuate for future storms.
“It was a terrible experience,” she said. “I don’t want to go through that again.”