Knowing when to Evacuate: One Woman’s Push Towards an Ocean-literate Nation

(photo courtesy of Chris Simoniello)

(photo courtesy of Chris Simoniello)


A true southern lady, Dr. Sharon Walker has been a resident of coastal Mississippi for decades. Following a distinguished academic career at the University of Southern Mississippi, she currently serves numerous local, state and federal programs dedicated to developing ocean literacy programs.

So what does an intelligent resident do when faced with the prospect of a powerful hurricane spanning the width of half the Gulf of Mexico? How does she decide if it’s time to crate Benji and pack the SUV?

Her decisions, like those of so many others, were based on a combination of personal experience, modern science and historical information… and threats from her only child, insisting he’d be orphaned if his parents remained in Ocean Springs.

Surrounded by a wealth of oceanographic and meteorological information, it would be easy to overlook the power of historical information. It has been said that Hurricane Camille killed more people in 1969 when she made landfall than during Hurricane Katrina. Many like Sharon who survived Hurricane Camille figured, “if I made it through the worst storm of the century without leaving my home, why evacuate now.”

Luckily, Sharon is also up on modern science, particularly information from coastal ocean observing systems. She knows that no two storms are alike, and that wind and water damage depend on many factors, unique to each system. While a coastal home may have survived Category Five winds during Camille, she knew that few, if any, could tolerate hours of assault under the predicted, severe storm surge. Ultimately, it was the impending storm surge that motivated Sharon to evacuate to Crestview, Florida.

A washed-out highway after Hurricane Katrina (photo courtesy of Joe Swaykos)

A washed-out highway after Hurricane Katrina (photo courtesy of Joe Swaykos)


Upon returning home in the aftermath of the storm, it was not surprising to Sharon that some beachfront neighborhoods were totally leveled. Unprecedented was the flooding that extended miles inland, washing out parts of Interstate 10 and leaving 90% of the buildings along the Biloxi-Gulfport coastline destroyed.

Sharon still recalls the sites and sounds she experienced while driving east along Highway 90 days after the storm-casino barges ripped from their moorings and deposited blocks from the water, house after house lifted off their foundations, and most heart-wrenching of all, Vietnamese women screaming in the streets while firemen carried black body bags containing their loved ones. Why were they there? Did they not understand the message? It left Sharon and the nation in tears.

Sharon equates the experience to being in a war zone – with all the sentiment and shock she felt when the World Trade Center Towers were destroyed on September 11, 2001. But, unlike the towers, there were warnings in place. The NOAA National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service provided television and radio broadcasts prior to the storm.

Why weren’t these enough? It boils down to experiential learning – the average citizen, particularly those who have never experienced a hurricane or tornado, likely didn’t understand the magnitude of danger. Sharon can provide a compelling example of effective communication regarding motivating people to evacuate: the local news filmed police officers going “door-to-door” to ask people to evacuate. Those who refused were asked for their next of kin, so they could be notified when their bodies were recovered after the storm. This was clearly understood by all viewers. Unfortunately, there are far more citizens than officers and this approach is only viable in a limited area.

Coastal Damage after Hurricane Katrina (photo courtesy of Joe Swaykos)

Coastal Damage after Hurricane Katrina (photo courtesy of Joe Swaykos)


Sharon loves her community – the people, their resiliency, indomitable spirit, tenacity, and genuine caring for one another. She understands their love of the coast, because she shares it with them, hurricanes and all. And she wants them to be safe, so much so that she has dedicated her life to promoting ocean literacy, teaching people across all disciplines about the relevance of the world’s ocean to our everyday lives.

Her tireless work bridges multiple disciplines, universities, states and federal agencies, focusing on a singular mission. One ocean. One ocean-literate nation, capable of making informed decisions.

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One Response to Knowing when to Evacuate: One Woman’s Push Towards an Ocean-literate Nation

  1. Laura Dunbar September 1, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    Growing up on the NJ shore, I remember the sentiment of the “old-timers”: only weaklings run from a hurricane. Then I’d hear in detail about each storm they’d successfully ridden-out. Years later I was living in Virginia Beach and waited too long before evacuating. Finally realizing I couldn’t “ride it out”, I opened my front door to see 2x4s from a construction site down the street flying through the air like spears. Trapped, I did the best I could to ensure my safety ~ but never again will I linger when a storm approaches.

    I’m inspired by Dr. Walker and her amazing dedication.

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