Dodging Two Bullets

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It
was Friday afternoon and there was a hurricane in the gulf. “Dennis
the Menace,” as the media (unoriginally) called it, was forecast
to come straight up Mobile Bay and into Alabama. As a 13-year resident
of the gulf coast, and as a veteran of 3 previous hurricanes, I
knew to take this seriously. So in preparation, I diligently worked
my way through a pint of strawberry-vanilla ice cream.

I
should probably explain that any destructive force of nature is
likely to leave power outages. So one of the first things most people
do when they hear a hurricane is coming is: get rid of the perishables
in the refrigerator. I had already cooked all my hamburger meat.
I had 2 Cornish hens in the oven with a half hour left. Later I
would wrap everything and put it in a cooler. The only exception
was the pint of ice cream because it melts easily. If the roof ever
gets blown off your house and you are left wet, dirty and homeless,
the last thing you need is warm, runny ice cream all over everything
in your cooler. But I digress. As I enjoyed my pre-hurricane ritual
gluttony, I watched the pre-hurricane ritual news reports. In between
the talk of evacuation routes and shelters, there were plenty of
warnings to look out for “price gouging.”

Price
gouging is what the state mischief mavens call violations of their
arbitrary price ceiling on goods and services. They usually enforce
it during emergencies, and sometimes when there is no clear emergency.
On 9/11, for example, a lot of people felt insecure. In times of
uncertainty, it is a natural precaution to gas up your car. As the
demand for gasoline rose on that day, gas stations followed the
usual practice of raising their prices, prompting the Gouge Guardians
to spring into action. No, it didn’t matter that the nearest attack
was 980 miles away, the GG’s were ready to protect paying customers
from unscrupulous greed. Most local gas vendors already know to
be cautious when a hurricane is in the gulf, but when the GG’s swooped
in on 9/11, they learned bewilderment as well.

But
let me get back to the hurricane. Earlier in the day, I had driven
over to the neighborhood convenience store to fill my tank. It was
Friday, the hurricane was forecast to hit Sunday, and already the
store was out of regular gasoline. From the length of the lines,
I guessed the premium gas would be gone by that evening. Late comers
would simply be out of luck. With every hurricane I’ve been through,
I’ve witnessed the sad effect of price gouging laws. Since gas stations
cannot raise prices with the demand, there is no incentive for early
customers to be conservative with their purchases. This is why coast
dwellers know to get gas the minute a hurricane moves into the gulf.
A family of four, desperate to get north in their minivan, doesn’t
want to discover that there is no gas because all the people staying
put gobbled it up early for their Suburbans. But it still happens.
Some gas vendors choose to ration as their supplies dwindle, selling
only a prescribed number of gallons to each customer. Curiously,
rationing is just the sort of function performed by a freely fluctuating
price system, but you can’t tell that to the GGs. No one seems to
connect that maybe there is a link between price gouging laws and
gas shortages.

Since
I already had three quarters of a tank, I decided to forego the
gasoline and go start on the ice cream. I was just a few spoonfuls
from hitting cardboard when I heard something that caused me to
nearly drop my spoon. “Governor Riley has issued a mandatory evacuation
for all of Mobile County,” the news anchor said. All of Mobile County?
Probably the anchor misspoke, I think to myself. I know for a fact
that anchors often misspeak because I am a technical director for
television newscasts. I hear them misspeak all the time, especially
when they are ad-libbing. But a few minutes later it is confirmed.
Yes, there is a MANDATORY evacuation for ALL of Mobile County.

Mobile
County has a population just shy of 400,000 people, and to the best
of my knowledge they’ve never been ordered to get up and leave all
at once, even for a hurricane. I wasn’t too concerned for myself;
I was scheduled to work at the TV station the next day. My job is
loosely considered an “essential service,” perhaps not in the vein
as a paramedic, but enough to keep me from being tasered into submission
if I’m caught driving home during a hurricane curfew. Come what
may, I would stick around. Yet I worried for my landlady. She has
two adult children with special needs that couldn’t possibly tolerate
a long car trip north. I decided to go check on her situation.

I caught her standing in her doorway and asked if she had seen the
news report about the mandatory evacuation. She looked at me blankly
as though I was speaking Portuguese. I explained it carefully to
her, and her reaction was not what I expected. She didn’t get anxious
and upset. She simply shrugged and said curtly, “I’m staying here.”

By
the time I got back to my TV, an emergency management official was
on explaining, in Clintonesque fashion, what exactly is meant by
“mandatory.” Mobile County, it seemed, was reacting to the evacuation
order with a collective state of apoplexy. “We are doing this to
save lives,” the official said. The question I kept waiting for
the reporter to ask, but which never came, was: Are you going to
arrest anyone who fails to evacuate? I could see that the official
was terrified of it coming, so he did his best to hedge it off.
There are not enough personnel, he said, to go door to door. In
other words, no one would be thrown in the pokey for lack of enforcers.
The hasty, nervous justifications were not just meant to mollify
those fearful of arrest. Some residents of Dauphin Island, which
is certainly a dangerous place to be in a hurricane, had reserved
hotel rooms on the mainland in preparation for Dennis. When they
arrived, they found the hotels were closing because of the mandatory
evacuation order. I am not sure of their fate, but I hope they made
it to a shelter.

From
my point of view, Mobile County was facing two menaces; one from
Dennis and the other from the state. Imagine the chaos of almost
400,000 people from Mobile County, plus another potential 140,000
in neighboring Baldwin County, all moving north. With little notice
or time to prepare for a long drive, they pack the evacuation routes,
not knowing where the next gas station might be that hasn’t sold
out. Imagine them driving from one hotel to another, looking for
a vacancy. (The only thing the Gouge Guardians love more than cracking
down on gas stations is cracking down on hotels.) Imagine them being
trapped or stranded in a car as the hurricane moves inland.

As
it turned out, when everyone figured out that the evacuation order
had no teeth, most reacted as my landlady. They shrugged and stayed
put. Or they evacuated inland to the extent that they weren’t frustrated
by the state’s heavy hand. As almost everyone knows by now, Dennis
followed a similar course as Ivan some ten months earlier. As the
outer bands touched shore, it moved east, sparing Mobile the brunt
of its force. Overall, we were spared the scale of damage left in
the wake of Ivan. Civic leaders have been saying the area dodged
a bullet. But to my mind, we dodged two bullets.

July
13, 2005

J.E.
Crosby [send him mail] writes
from Mobile, Alabama where he works as a television director. His
opinions are his own and do not reflect those of his employers,
who are grateful not to be mentioned by name.

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