People and Community Research

The City of Miami is not prepared for hurricanes; people need it to be

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was submitted as part of the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge” hosted by the University of Miami Graduate School. Open to all graduate students, entries were judged by media professionals.

Since Hurricane Irma in September 2017, Miami has been relatively hurricane free. Do these quiet periods benefit Miami hurricane preparedness, or do they lull the city to sleep, exacerbating mental biases in preparedness? If so, who do these biases hurt the most? 

When Hurricane Ivan made its way into the Gulf of Mexico in 2004, officials in New Orleans, Louisiana, were almost certain that they were underprepared for a direct hit from a major Category 4 storm. However, the storm made a right turn into Alabama and the Florida panhandle, only brushing the extremely vulnerable city. 

A year later, the infamous Hurricane Katrina arrived, and instead of taking advantage of the scare that Ivan provided, complacency set in, and the storm devastated the city. While that relative inaction may just seem extremely careless—or just plain lazy—it can be considered a type of mental bias that leads to preparedness avoidance. It appears that New Orleans fell victim to inertia bias, or the lack of motivation to act, which overwhelmed logic. 

The thought that a disaster of that magnitude would never happen in New Orleans as well, was also likely rooted in a second type of bias called “optimism” bias. Being affected by this bias simply doubts that adverse effects will occur and hopes for the best. Many of us fall victim to this bias, including city residents who are ordered to evacuate—a most recent example being those who were impacted by Hurricane Ian in Southwest Florida. Much of Fort Myers was ordered to evacuate, yet many didn’t and the death toll continued to rise in the storm’s aftermath.

A third mental bias that likely affects more places than just New Orleans (*clears throat*, Miami) is known as amnesia bias. The pains of unpleasant memories are discarded after a certain period of time for those who experience this bias. After Katrina, hurricane preparedness likely became a major priority for the entire Gulf of Mexico region for years to come. Seventeen years later, in 2022, how present in the mind of decision-makers might such an initiative be? 

Florida, the state most frequently visited by hurricanes, is widely known for its out-of-the-ordinary headlines. This unique culture seems to have carried over into severe weather preparedness—where flood watches and warnings can turn into potential pool or beach party invites. Videos of nightlife seekers running and driving through flood waters could be found all over social media. Ironically, despite the carefree, blissful lifestyles, Florida is one of the most vulnerable places in the world to climate change and its associated weather hazards, and Miami-Dade County contains 26% of the entire country’s most vulnerable areas to sea-level rise.

While environmental or climate vulnerability is one layer, social vulnerability is another, and many communities in Miami deal with both. To live in Miami is to face the danger of tropical cyclones, but it can also mean that you suffer from one of the nation’s worst (and worsening) income inequalities. For less affluent communities with high percentages of renters, it means that hurricane preparedness may be unaffordable or even neglected. It is also for this reason that communities of color, in which poverty is most pronounced in Miami, suffer the most from a hurricane’s adverse effects not only during the storm, but after as well. For someone who can afford flood insurance and all the safeties that come with being able to prioritize preparedness, the impact that these biases have are not as harmful. But for our communities who will be left reeling after a storm, these biases can leave even more vulnerable. Thus, it is important that when city officials wake up and smell the seawater, that they include these communities first in initiatives for not only hurricane preparedness, but also climate resilience. And you, as a Miami resident, can email your commissioner today and help to wake them up. 

Nkosi Muse is a doctoral researcher in the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami. Read more about the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge.”