- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — With time running out on the June 1 start of the 2006 hurricane season, Lois and Rick Josepher were planning yet another run to Home Depot.

Mr. Josepher ran through a checklist that might equally have applied for an extended camping trip.

A dozen propane-gas bottles, a camping stove, walkie-talkies, Coleman lanterns, fans, several large ice coolers, about 20 flashlights of various sizes and shapes, plastic “FEMA” blue tarps, a gas-powered electricity generator, a rack of 10-gallon water bottles, extension cords and piles of canned goods were laid out across the couple’s Parkland, Fla., garage floor and kitchen counters.

“We need more [5-gallon gasoline] containers. We have a lot of batteries, but they are from last year. I think we need to get some more,” said Mr. Josepher, a 52-year-old Boca Raton, Fla., tax lawyer and Florida native who has weathered dozens of hurricanes, including Hurricane Wilma last year and the Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

With installers reporting a six-month backlog, it was too late for the Josephers to buy steel hurricane shutters, or replacement windows made with polycarbonate that can withstand being hit by debris propelled by 150 mph winds.

It has taken the Josephers six months to get the city permits and county inspections, collect from their insurance company, purchase the materials and hire the roofers to repair the barrel tiles that were blown off their home when Wilma rampaged across South Florida in October.

“I’ll double the water order next week,” said Mrs. Josepher, surveying broken roof tiles and a mailbox that still leans at a precarious angle. “I’ll call the roofers again today. They said they’d come. … It is dry now, but the rainy season starts soon.”

The family was asked whether they had an evacuation plan in case another Category 5 hurricane comes steaming toward their gated community of manicured lawns and swimming pools close by the Everglades.

“You mean if we get another Andrew? Andrew was the scariest night of my life,” said Mr. Josepher. “No. We won’t evacuate. By the time you know where it’s going to hit, there is no time and nowhere to go. You don’t want to be out on I-95 in a car during a hurricane. We’d do the same thing we did in Andrew — spend the night in a closet.

Down Interstate 95 in Hollywood, Fla., Yvonne Honaker, a public schools administrator, was preparing as well. A new generator, her second, should ensure she can operate her refrigerator and air conditioner if the power fails, as it did for nine days after Wilma hit on Oct. 24.

But her most important preparation for the 2006 season was a new roof, which puts her among just 20 percent of local residents to have completed repairs from last year’s damage.

“The blue tarps are finally down. … I am so happy,” Mrs. Honaker said giddily after inspecting her new shingles. “Let it rain.”

NOAA forecast due

Just halfway through what meteorologists call a 25-year “busy cycle” in which heightened hurricane activity is expected, the 2006 hurricane season now is getting ready to unleash itself on Florida, the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast states and Central America.

Last year was a record year with 28 tropical storms, 15 of which grew into hurricanes. Most were conceived in the blistering dry deserts of Ethiopia, born in warm waters off the west coast of Africa, and grew more menacing as they crossed the Atlantic. The year before had 16 named storms, nine reaching hurricane status.

“It is unlikely that 2006 will beat the 2005 record, but remember, 1992 — the year Andrew hit South Florida — there were only four named storms. It doesn’t take a record year for there to be a powerful hurricane,” said Timothy Schott, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hurricane specialist, in Bethesda.

Mr. Schott said there is more severe weather in the United States than in any other place on Earth. “When it comes to tornadoes and hurricanes, we win the prize,” he said. “The message is be ready. Be prepared.”

William Gray, the Colorado State University meteorologist credited with creating the science of hurricane prediction, predicted last month that 2006 would bring 17 named storms, including nine hurricanes, five of which will be intense. NOAA releases its 2006 predictions today, at the beginning of National Hurricane Preparedness Week.

But Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said that while predictions may be useful for governments, first-responders and insurance forecasting, NOAA’s annual prediction is not that useful to the average homeowner.

“I worry that people will say there are not as many hurricanes predicted this year and relax. You cannot let your guard down because fewer storms are predicted. You have to prepare. If one storm hits your community, that is devastating,” he said.

Hard-learned lessons

While most of the world has focused since last fall on the troubled response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi, hurricane-preparedness specialists are focusing their attention on Florida, which historically gets hit by eight out of 10 hurricanes and suffers by far the most property damage.

And specialists in the state say the hard-learned lessons of the past have left them particularly well-equipped to show their Gulf Coast neighbors what they need to do to get ready.

Andrew hit Miami on Aug. 24, 1992, doing $25 billion in damage. It was the first hurricane to hit Miami in 25 years, one of only three Category 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States since record keeping began.

As with Katrina, more than 60 percent of Andrew’s death toll was among the elderly, so Florida immediately put laws in place to force nursing homes to prepare hurricane-evacuation plans. And as with Katrina, much of the financial damage done by Andrew was to older homes, built before building codes required reinforced framing, windows and roofs.

Driven in part by fears that the home-insurance industry would pack up and leave, the state implemented strong building standards and even stronger enforcement. That drove up prices and slowed the building process — which is why tens of thousands of Florida roofs are still protected with blue plastic — but Floridians know if their house or roof passes inspection, it is hurricane tough.

Even so, insurance remains a worry. Some 500,000 homeowner policies have been canceled in Florida since last year, and Poe Financial Group, Florida’s third-largest insurance company, is in receivership. There are some 815,000 families now on the state insurance rolls, which is seriously underfunded. The state has an estimated $2 trillion in coastal property at risk, and those with homes along the coast expect their rates to as much as double in the next year.

After the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, officials began wondering what more they can do. The state Legislature appropriated $500 million to subsidize homeowners trying to “harden” their homes for the coming season and approved a 12-day sales-tax holiday to encourage the purchase of flashlights, hurricane shutters, generators and other materials.

It also passed legislation requiring gas stations along major evacuation routes be equipped with generators to keep their pumps working.

Truckloads of ice

In 2003, Florida spent $25 million to create a uniform statewide system of communications so that all emergency management teams can communicate seamlessly. That investment proved its value this month when a dozen firefighting outfits from across the state fought brush fires along I-95 as a cohesive unit.

In preparation for the 2006 hurricane season, Florida has more than 300 tractor-trailer loads of bottled water and another 300 truckloads of ice — about $6 million worth — prepositioned in four locations around the state.

Local emergency teams also have resources cached. Pensacola, which was pummeled by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and narrowly escaped the worst of Hurricane Dennis last year, is part of a statewide “mutual aid” system, equipped with generators, a communications truck, a boat, helicopter, chain saws, a dive team, a shower truck and a cook truck.The self-contained team, with about 50 police officers and support staff, stands ready to deploy in a convoy of about 75 trucks and automobiles.

“If we get hit, we use it here. If it is needed somewhere else, we put it on the road and send it there,” said Ron McNesby, Escambia County sheriff. The cook truck alone served 500 meals a day for 30 days in Mississippi after Katrina.

“It is one team, one fight. When a disaster strikes, we get everyone in the same room, around the same table and ask ‘Who has the best resources to get this mission filled,’ ” said Chuck Hagan, Florida’s State Emergency Response Team logistics director. “We worry about how we are going to pay for it and filling out the paperwork later.”

Even with four hurricanes of its own to contend with, Florida sent 7,000 emergency responders and caravans of food, water, tarps and other supplies to Mississippi after Katrina, assisting four of Mississippi’s hardest-hit counties, said William “Craig” Fugate, the plain-talking, no-nonsense director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

‘Culture of preparedness’

“Florida has the best emergency-response team in the nation, but it is the personal responsibility of each and every Floridian to prepare. Families and businesses that prepare are safer and recover quicker than those who don’t plan and don’t take action,” said Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a May 10 address to nearly 4,000 Florida emergency managers at the Governor’s Hurricane Conference, the largest of its kind in the world.

Mr. Bush said the state is responsible to provide food, water and shelter to those in dire need, but Florida’s “culture of preparedness” begins in every home. He asked those who can afford it to take more responsibility for themselves.

“It makes it much harder when people get in line with their Lexus or Mercedes for ice and water at distribution points, when there is a [grocery store] open a block away,” he said to sustained cheers and applause.

The storm that got Floridians thinking about hurricane preparedness this year was Wilma, which was named on Oct. 15, 2005, and quickly intensified into the strongest hurricane in Atlantic history. It had a very large eye and created a tremendous storm surge in the Florida Keys, where only 5 percent of the 80,000 residents evacuated.

After crossing Cuba, Wilma moved into the Gulf and came ashore south of Naples, Fla., as a Category 3. Unlike most hurricanes, which diminish after hitting land, Wilma gained strength as it crossed the Everglades and charged through the back door of Florida’s Gold Coast, with 125-mph winds blowing the doors, windows and roofs off million-dollar homes across Broward, Brevard and Palm Beach counties.

Some places were without electricity for weeks, prompting power companies to experiment for the first time with placing electric lines underground. Major grocery store and hardware chains, after meeting with state officials over the winter, agreed to voluntarily install giant generators, to keep their freezers running and the lights on when the electric grid is out.

“We had damage — dripping roof, that sort of thing — but we have a generator, and we opened our doors eight hours after Wilma passed. I grew up here. I know all these people. They needed chain saws, tarps, flashlights. They were lined up for blocks. … We play an important role in hurricane preparation and recovery,” said Eddie Correa, manager of the Home Depot in Davie, Fla.

“There are people in our corporate office in Atlanta, and all they do is think about hurricanes. When are they coming? Where are they going to hit? Which stores need materials and how do we get it there?”

Evacuation centers

At the hurricane conference, in addition to front-line personnel, nearly 200 vendors from around the world were hawking goods and services ranging from disaster aid for pets to advice on navigating the bureaucracy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Specialists say that with proper preparation, a hurricane need cause no more problems for the majority of people than a major snowstorm in the Northeast. “It is a lot like camping. There is no reason on earth for me, or most people, to be standing in a line somewhere for ice and water,” said Mr. Josepher.

For the very poor, the elderly and infirm — who for financial or physical reasons cannot make advance preparations — or those in mobile homes, evacuation to a shelter is necessary. Every county in Florida has identified and prepared dozens of such centers.

Palm Beach has 28 evacuation centers and Miami-Dade has 51, for example, meaning the state is unlikely ever to confront a situation like the overcrowding in New Orleans’ Superdome after Katrina.

The greatest danger, specialists say, is the storm surge near beaches and inland waterways. The conventional wisdom is to hide from the wind, but to run from the water.

Even here, based on years of experience, Florida is pioneering. Rather than evacuate everyone in a hurricane’s path, Florida is developing plans, based on flood plains, that pinpoint who needs to evacuate, under what conditions and when. It just appropriated $29 million to update state maps to define areas, particularly in new housing developments, susceptible to storm surges.

Mr. Mayfield of the Hurricane Center in Miami said the Josephers and Mrs. Honacker have the right idea. They have enough food and water for a week or 10 days and, since they do not live in a storm-surge area, are making a reasonable decision to shelter in place.

Regional risks

Residents of the Washington area are unlikely to face the sort of storms that hit Florida and the Gulf coast last year, but that doesn’t mean they can be complacent.

John W. Droneburg III, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said tornadoes, spun off from hurricanes or thunderstorms, and flooding along the Potomac and Susquehanna rivers can pose serious problems when hurricanes move north.

“When Gulf Coast hurricanes come storming up the Mississippi Valley and the Appalachians, we can get significant flood damage,” said Mr. Droneburg, in a telephone interview from MEMA headquarters in Reisterstown. “As long as you are out of the flood zone, there is no need to evacuate.”

Mr. Droneburg and Mr. Schott advised local families to prepare by stocking up with food, water, batteries and other supplies, as well as a $40 NOAA emergency weather radio that sets off an alarm when severe weather threatens.

Frank Lepore, spokesman at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said that of the 55 million people populating the coastal areas from Brownsville, Texas, to Portland, Maine, fewer than 15 percent have ever experienced a direct hit from a hurricane.

Mr. Mayfield blamed Hurricane Camille, a vicious Category 5 with 200 mph wind gusts and a storm surge of 22 feet in 1969, for many of the deaths in Katrina. New Orleans survived Camille, leading many residents to think they didn’t need to evacuate for Katrina.

For many, it was a fatal mistake, making Katrina, with about 1,200 fatalities, the third-deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.

“The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was one for the record books, and those who tell you it can’t be worse? I’m here to tell you it can,” Mr. Mayfield said at the hurricane conference, where he was embraced like a rock star. “New Orleans did not experience [Katrina’s] highest winds.”

He pointed out that nearly all the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 narrowly missed the densest population areas, meaning the deaths, injuries and financial damage could have been much worse.

“If you look at the tracks of the hurricanes, you’ll see that the eye walls [where the intensity and damage is greatest] were threading the eye of a needle,” he said.

It may be 100 years before another hurricane comes to Parkland and the Josephers’ neighborhood, or it could get hit two or three times this season. Much the same could be said for most anywhere along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, as far north as New England.

“Hurricanes are a part of life in Florida. But you prepare. When I was a kid, hurricane preparation was putting tape on your windows. Andrew changed all that,” said Mr. Josepher.

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