In spite of recent disasters brought on by Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in the last fifteen years, the overall state of preparedness in hurricane prone coastal areas of the United States need improvement. Over the past several years, there have been a number of situations with a landfalling tropical storm or hurricane that have been problematic for emergency management personnel.
They include Hurricane Floyd, which created the largest peacetime evacuation in United States History back in September, 1999, Hurricane Opal, which rapidly intensified and increased forward speed while many were distracted by the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial in October, 1995, and Hurricane Gordon in September, 2000.
Now, with the number of powerful hurricanes expected to increased over the next several decades, the biggest surprise of all, coastal residents are simply not prepared. Coupled with the reality that the science of forecasting has not caught up with such things as rapid intensification, the possibility of an even bigger disaster than Andrew with even a greater loss of life is very great.
There are several important factors to look at when considering the current state of preparedness. In a recent CNN Presents Special on Hurricanes called, Hurricane! When The Big One Hits, John Zarrella discovered that there are now 83 million people living along the coastal United States from Maine to Texas, and they have a combined total property value of $6.4 trillion dollars.
More surprising than that though was the fact that Zarrella, the CNN Bureau Chief in Miami who also covered Hurricane Andrew in 1992, found that 85 percent of coastal residents have never experienced a hurricane, and 50 percent don't have either a disaster kit or evacuation plan.
In addition, because of the increased population growth, it takes much longer to evacuate hurricane prone areas along the coast. In an interview with Zarrella for the CNN Special, Bob Sheets, former director of the National Hurricane Center, stated that several decades ago it "used to take 12 hours to evacuate," but because of the housing boom along the coast, evacuations take much longer.
There are also problems with evacuation shelters. In Florida, schools, which are used as a primary source for such shelters are not solid or secure enough. This brings to mind the situation that occurred at such a shelter in South Carolina when Hugo crashed ashore in 1989.
In response, the Red Cross has begun an evaluation process to make sure that the buildings coastal residents are told to evacuate to are safe and secure. Buildings that are unable to make the grade are taken off of the Red Cross' list of emergency shelters for their particular area. While this helps protect the emergency workers and evacuees, it also hurts evacuees because the next shelter may be 20 to 30 miles away.
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The science of forecasting hurricanes has made some significant improvements over the past several decades. However, lead hurricane researchers such as Dr. Hugh Willoughby believe that the science still needs work. The ability to forecast intensification needs more work, especially in the area of rapid intensification such as the case of Hurricane Opal in 1995.
Scientists feel they need better tools such as increased computer power and personnel so that they can develop better models of hurricanes for research. The problem is at the same time, the government has begun to cut back by laying key personnel off.
Back in the days of Project Stormfury, the government was supplying ample funding because there had been disasters such as the first billion dollar hurricane in 1955, which was Hurricane Diane. Well, recently, there just hasn't been such a disaster.
For some time after Hurricane Andrew, there were Congressional Hearings, but nothing more done. In addition, the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew showed how ill-prepared some of the government relief agencies were for such a disaster. Despite the fact that Stormfury failed, and ultimately was a focal point of mistrust between the United States and its Central American and Caribbean neighbors, the National Academy of Science recommended that the idea of storm modification be revisited.
Private companies such as Dyn-O-Mat in South Florida have already taken steps to do such work with their Dyn-O-Storm product. NOAA has made some improvements in technology with the development of the Gulfstream aircraft, and they are trying to learn more about hurricanes with the help of NASA, but they admit that coastal population growth is hard to keep up with.
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As a result, the United States may be more vulnerable to a tropical storm or hurricane than ever. Just take a look at what happened last year with Tropical Storm Allison in Southeast Texas and Western Louisiana. Allison wound up being the costliest tropical storm in U.S. History with nearly $5 billion dollars in damage.
Speaking of Louisiana, Zarrella happened to interview the emergency management director for the New Orleans area, which happens to be the most vulnerable city to a hurricane in the United States. He found that in a doomsday scenario, there could be a loss of life in upwards of 20,000 to 30,000 people if New Orleans was hit by a major hurricane.
Last hit by Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the city of New Orleans has dodged a number of bullets over the past several decades including a glancing blow from Hurricanes Andrew (1992) and Georges (1998).
This coastal city, which is below sea level and surrounded by water on three sides, was flooded by Betsy in 1965, and it resulted in 61 deaths. Meanwhile, another coastal city that is quite vulnerable to hurricanes, New York City has been featured recently at this site in a special report.
Approximately, 78.5 percent of all New York coastal residents have never experienced a hurricane before, which is slightly below the overall average indicated earlier, but it is still too high. In addition to the high death-tolls, there is a very real chance that the next major hurricane to make landfall in a major U.S. city will cause upwards of $50 to $80 billion dollars.
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