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THE NATION

Hurricane center chief issues final warning

A departing Max Mayfield is convinced that the Southeast is inviting disaster.

By Carol J. Williams

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

January 3, 2007

MIAMI

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Frustrated with people and politicians who refuse to listen or learn, National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield ends his 34-year government career today in search of a new platform for getting out his unwelcome message: Hurricane Katrina was nothing compared with the big one yet to come.

Mayfield, 58, leaves his high-profile job with the National Weather Service more convinced than ever that U.S. residents of the Southeast are risking unprecedented tragedy by continuing to build vulnerable homes in the tropical storm zone and failing to plan escape routes.

He pointed to southern Florida's 7 million coastal residents.

"We're eventually going to get a strong enough storm in a densely populated area to have a major disaster," he said. "I know people don't want to hear this, and I'm generally a very positive person, but we're setting ourselves up for this major disaster."

More than 1,300 deaths across the Gulf Coast were attributed to Hurricane Katrina, the worst human toll from a weather event in the United States since the 1920s.

But Mayfield warns that 10 times as many fatalities could occur in what he sees as an inevitable strike by a huge storm during the current highly active hurricane cycle, which is expected to last another 10 to 20 years.

His apocalyptic vision of thousands dead and millions homeless is a different side of the persona he established as head of the hurricane center.

Mayfield attained national celebrity status during the tempestuous 2004 and 2005 seasons, appearing on network television with hourly updates as hurricanes Charley, Ivan, Frances and Wilma bore down on the Caribbean and the Southeast. His calm demeanor and avuncular sincerity endeared him to millions of TV viewers seeking survival guidance.

And he argues that his dire predictions don't have to become reality.

The technology exists to build high-rise buildings capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and tropical storm surge more powerful than those experienced in the last few years. Much of Hong Kong's architecture has been built to survive typhoons, and hotels and apartments built in Kobe, Japan, after a 1995 earthquake devastated the city are touted as indestructible, he said.

What is lacking in the United States is the political will to make and impose hard decisions on building codes and land use in the face of resistance from the influential building industry and a public still willing to gamble that the big one will never hit, he said.

"It's good for the tax base" to allow developers to put up buildings on the coastline, Mayfield said in explaining politicians' reluctance to deter housing projects that expose residents to storm risks.

"I don't want the builders to get mad at me," he said, "but the building industry strongly opposes improvement in building codes."

Consumers also have yet to demand sturdier construction, Mayfield added. A builder gets a better return on investment in upgraded carpet and appliances than for safety features above and beyond most states' minimal requirements, he said.

As a senior civil servant, Mayfield was prohibited from making job inquiries in the private sector while still in the government's employ. But he said on Tuesday, his last day in office, that he hoped to launch a second career as a consultant in emergency planning and disaster response. He has particular interest in a potential public-private initiative to mine natural disaster scenes for their educational value.

He envisions a natural disaster assessment service like the National Transportation Safety Board, which probes the causes and consequences of aviation and other transport accidents.

"If the NTSB finds some structural problem is the cause of an air crash, you would never see that plane continue to be built with the same problems," he said.

With natural disasters, though, the same mistakes that put lives at risk are repeated year after year in unsafe construction and inadequate planning, he said.

Mayfield said he also was pondering collaboration with advocates of tougher building standards and land use rules.

"It's not just about the forecasting. Whatever I do, I want to help change the outcome," he said, conceding frustration with persistent public disregard of federal and local government campaigns to boost hurricane awareness and preparation.

Even after the devastating hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, he said, fewer than 50% of those living in storm-prone areas have a hurricane evacuation plan.

While he has been critical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Katrina's devastation of New Orleans, he warns against depending on the federal government after natural disasters. He was dismayed to see federal agencies handing out water and ice in South Florida after Hurricane Wilma hit in October 2005, when stores were open and tap water was usable.

"You don't want the federal government to be your first-responders," he said. "The government can't do everything for people and it shouldn't, or else you create a culture of dependence."

Mayfield praises the Florida state government for its well-oiled disaster-response program and steps toward improving building safety, in contrast with other states along the Gulf of Mexico that he says still have no statewide building standards.

Though Mayfield's name and face recognition are the envy of some presidential hopefuls, he laughs out loud at the notion of running for office.

"Oh, good gosh, no! That is just not my thing," he says.

At the hurricane center on the Florida International University campus, Mayfield will be succeeded by Bill Proenza, the National Weather Service's director for the Southern region. Home to 77 million, the region has "the most active and severe weather in the world," according to the weather service's parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Proenza, 62, began his meteorological career at the Miami office as an intern in 1963. As director of 50 regional offices and 1,000 employees in the Southern region for the last eight years, he has long experience collaborating with the hurricane center staff on forecasts and tracking.

"That's why I don't have any problem walking out the door," said Mayfield, declaring himself fearful that the mild 2006 hurricane season left those in the storm zone ever more complacent.

carol.williams@latimes.com