Unprepared States From Maine to Texas Prey to Killer Storms : Disaster planning: As the hurricane season begins, dozens of communities are ill-prepared for catastrophe.


As the 1994 hurricane season opens this month, years of complacency have left significant sections of the East and Gulf coasts vulnerable to death and destruction.

Communities from Maine to Texas remain ill-prepared for the killer storms that could spin out of the Atlantic this summer and fall.

While an Associated Press survey of emergency directors in hurricane states noted a surge in federal concern and a growing professionalism among local officials, it also found troubling gaps in readiness:

* A number of states still await detailed computer projections that can accurately predict storm flooding from an approaching hurricane. Puny federal funding is the culprit.

* In some jurisdictions, the crucial role of hurricane planning and emergency coordination is filled by part-timers with tiny budgets. One county emergency director could not even recall his evacuation routes.

* Some evacuation routes are frail and untried. They include flood-prone highways and choke points along bridges and causeways. When tested, some routes have clotted in bumper-to-bumper traffic that would be at the mercy of an onrushing storm.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., emergency director B. T. Kennedy fears a bottleneck where 18 northbound lanes on the turnpike and I-95 collapse into five. This could freeze the traffic flow headed north from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. He imagines a hurricane "overtaking this gridlock and causing an enormous number of casualties."

"This scares the hell out of us," he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has tried to help, tripling funds for hurricane programs to $2.8 million this year, with plans to push it past $7 million in 1995. But Director James Lee Witt admits it will take time before the money buys results.

"We still have a long way to go," he said.

The attempt to revitalize the nation's hurricane program comes after a 30-year lull in storms that took the urgency out of storm preparation.

This lethargy often meant perfunctory appointments and limited budgets. In many communities, the role of emergency manager has been designated a volunteer position or an addendum to a county employee's job description.

The AP survey found many counties staffed with full-time directors who have received extensive training from FEMA and the National Weather Service Hurricane Center.

But for some emergency directors, the job is just a sidelight to other careers--among them, seafood wholesaling, teaching physical education and working in a paper mill.

Alan Pierce, the emergency management director for Franklin County in Florida's Panhandle, has an offbeat take on how he got the job. "I guess I had all my teeth," he said. "I got it because at the time they were looking to fill the position, mostly responding to FEMA requests."

Pierce, the county planner, admitted his experience in emergency management is "very limited." He said his rural county does not have an evacuation plan because there is only one way out.

Tom Miller, the emergency planner for Nueces County, Tex., had trouble recalling evacuation routes or the name of his counterpart in Corpus Christi, a city of 260,000 in his jurisdiction.

Miller, the county's building maintenance director, has a tiny hurricane budget. The county conducts no public education program to prepare the public for a storm.

"I really don't spend a lot of time on emergency management myself," he said.

Robert Parker has had training in nine years as the volunteer emergency management director for McIntosh County, Ga., but evacuating 9,500 people won't be easy. Escape routes are limited, and a computer that provides crucial storm data was damaged by a falling ceiling. There are no funds for repairs.

"Money is a problem in a small county," Parker said.

The federal government has also been guilty of under-funding hurricane preparedness. For years, FEMA's annual hurricane budget was an unwavering $896,000. By comparison, $22 million was spent on earthquake programs last year.

Stingy funding slowed a program that provides highly accurate, computerized projections of where a storm's flood surge will strike.

They were valuable tools when Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989, and again in 1992 when Andrew savaged Homestead, Fla. Deaths were kept to a minimum as officials, using the data, moved people out of harm's way.

"It's the key to knowing who has to move, where and when, and whether the roadway system is safe," Kate Hale, emergency management director for Dade County, Fla., said of the evacuation plans. "It really helps you understand and correct misperceptions about the areas of vulnerability."

But only 13 of 34 coastal regions have up-to-date evacuation studies.

High-risk areas in the Carolinas and northeast Florida and big population centers, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, still await original or updated plans.

The Connecticut evacuation study, just completed, was begun seven years ago. Other regional studies, including Alabama, Mississippi and parts of Texas, must be redone to incorporate booming populations and development.

"Over the years, the studies were given just enough money to sustain them, not complete them," said Dan Catlit, the earthquake and hurricane program manager for FEMA's New England region. "It wound up costing a lot more money for no results."

Even with completed plans, local officials have few opportunities to run full-scale drills.

"These people wanted the chance to improve their state of readiness, but in the past we didn't have the resources to help them and they couldn't get it out of their local budgets," Catlit said.

Some areas found flaws in their plans the hard way--real life evacuations from threatening storms:

* As Hurricane Andrew approached the Louisiana shore in 1992, officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of low-lying areas in Iberia Parish. Within hours, northbound Highway 90 became a 50-mile parking lot because traffic lights in Lafayette had not been turned off. Even after the lights were fixed, it took a precious two hours for the gridlock to ease.

* As Hurricane Hugo traveled up the East Coast in 1989, residents fleeing the Georgia coastline found themselves locked in bumper-to-bumper traffic that extended the 170 miles from Savannah to Macon.

* A federal review after 1991's Hurricane Bob found a disjointed reaction along the Connecticut shore. Local officials, according to the report, "took different preparedness actions even though each community faced the same hazard. . . . In fact, some communities conducted evacuations the evening of Aug. 18, some on the morning of Aug. 19, and some made no public evacuations."

Some planners have few choices about how they can evacuate residents. They are handicapped by limited highway access and vulnerable routes that could be shut down by the outriders of a storm.

"I'd like to tell you it takes a rocket scientist to plan the evacuation routes, but a 10-second examination of the map shows you how few options we have," said Hank Christen, Okaloosa County director of emergency services whose piece of the Florida Panhandle has only two roads out.

Major urban areas and tourist spots are also at risk:

* If low-lying sections of the major highway out of Brownsville, Tex., were to flood, about 110,000 residents would be left with a two-lane highway as their only alternative.

* All roads out of Ft. Myers, Fla., converge on the tiny cattle town of Arcadia, population 6,002. "We're talking 300,000 or more people heading to Arcadia," said Wayne Sallade, Charlotte County emergency director. "To me, it could be the biggest bottleneck ever seen--but what option do we have?"

* Those evacuating barrier island resorts fear what would happen if bridge traffic to the mainland jammed. Clay Stamp, emergency director for Ocean City, Md., conceded that his detailed time estimates for moving 300,000 tourists over two slender bridges could easily go awry.

"If we don't monitor the storm close enough and make the decision at the right time, we could get behind the eight ball," he said. "Traffic could get backed up, and you may have people evacuating during storm conditions. At some point, people would be instructed to stay where they are and seek shelter."

But shelter will be hard to find in some places.

In New Orleans, where an estimated 100,000 people have no personal means of transportation, officials are working on a plan to bring thousands to a staging area--perhaps the Superdome--where they could be transported out of the city by bus or railroad.

Bob Eichhorn, assistant director of emergency preparedness, admits the plan would be a huge undertaking, probably best handled by the military.

"They move divisions at a time," he said.

In the Florida Keys, the Monroe Detention Center on Stock Island will be refuge for three nursing homes and people with special medical needs.

If things really go wrong, the Keys have a "refuge of last resort" program. Structures along the evacuation route have been identified as having the best chance of surviving a hurricane.

"We could stop traffic and direct those people on the highway to those facilities in a last effort to save their lives," said Billy Wagner, emergency director for Monroe County.

Emergency planners themselves may have to seek shelter. Many command centers are in courthouses, municipal buildings and jails that have been flooded by past hurricanes.

With most of Norfolk, Va., vulnerable to flooding, officials have designated backup centers.

"In the event we have a severe storm, I think we can count on pretty much losing communications," said Troy Lapetina, the city's emergency service coordinator.

Federal authorities hope increased funding and a new emphasis on hurricane programs will lighten some of these grim scenarios.

Bob Shea, FEMA's director of mitigation, said additional monies will double the pace of the program providing computerized storm data to states. Other funding will be used to hire statewide hurricane coordinators.

FEMA has set up a command post at its Washington headquarters, where a collection of federal agencies will monitor a storm's approach and then coordinate relief efforts.

"We're looking to the future," Shea said, "to the next hurricane season and beyond."

But the new technology still points up present weaknesses in the system.

In the FEMA war room, computers provide a bird's eye view of the U.S. coastline so detailed you can see how many people over 65 live along the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J.

Technicians summon up street maps highlighted by magenta and lime hues of demographics. The map shows the causeways to the mainland that carried in tourists to casinos even as Hurricanes Bob and Gloria approached and where toll collection jammed the traffic of those trying to leave.

In contrast are the lines showing how far into the resort's crowded streets the ocean would rampage if a Category 4 hurricane, one level short of catastrophic, ever struck.

Within the flood zone, three blocks from the ocean's edge, is police headquarters, where city officials would run emergency operations.

Allyn Seel, the city's assistant emergency management director, speaks with confidence about the building's steel-reinforced walls, generator and emergency supplies.

"It's unlikely, but not impossible, this building could be lost," he said.

But Kate Hale, the Miami emergency management director who has seen what hurricanes can do, is skeptical about Atlantic City's hubris.

"I'd like to know," she said, "if they have ever seen a submarine made out of brick?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World