The potential disaster we can -- and must -- avoid

Forget Chernobyl. Put aside, for now, any concern about evacuating people in the remote event of a reactor accident. We've got a man-made, likely-to-happen-any-year disaster potential of major proportions along the entire Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard of the United States that demands immediate attention. It's the potential for hurricanes sweeping over the densely populated coastal lowlands.

It's a man-made potential because there would be no disaster at all if people hadn't unwisely built where storm-driven water is likely to wash them away. Since the potential for such disaster is man-made, intelligent action can moderate it.

Every year, the US National Weather Service warns that it can't forecast danger in time to evacuate people from many high-risk areas. Every year, the warning goes unheeded. And every year, the situation gets worse.

Now, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) has issued a warning that is unprecedented in its urgency. ``If we do not move forward quickly in seeking solutions to the hurricane problem,'' it says, ``we will pay a severe price. The price may be thousands of lives.''

Normally, this rather staid professional society avoids extreme statements. But its governing council has pulled out all the stops to get your attention with this one.

It's a plea, the council says, ``for the lives and property of US citizens.'' It adds, ``We are more vulnerable to hurricanes in the United States now than we have ever been in our history.''

It seems incredible that people will protest poor evacuation plans for nuclear power plants, yet ignore this danger. Where are the activists to curtail the development of hurricane-prone areas that couldn't possibly be evacuated within the 12 hours' warning time that is the most the National Hurricane Center can provide?

Evacuation times run to 20-30 hours for some of the most hurricane-prone areas -- Texas' Galveston Bay, Florida's Tampa Bay, as well as its southwestern and southeastern coasts, and the Keys. The AMS statement notes that ``we [do] not even know the time required to evacuate our most vulnerable city, New Orleans, nor the coastal islands of New Jersey, which are a mecca for hundreds of thousands of summertime vacationers.''

The gap between the longest practical warning time and the shortest evacuation time for such places arises partly from limitations of geography and transportation, and partly from hurricane behavior. A storm can suddenly -- and unpredictably -- speed up, intensify, or change course. If this were to bring an intense hurricane unexpectedly over a populated area, ``resulting casualties could number in the hundreds of thousands,'' the AMS warns. Yet this need not happen.

The AMS notes that one presently ignored option is vertical evacuation -- moving to the upper stories of substantial buildings when there's no time to leave the area, to protect against the storm surge of water, the major danger. ``Even though it was introduced 15 years ago,'' says the AMS, ``vertical evacuation has not been thoroughly evaluated. Consequently, not one community has chosen to adopt this as part of its procedures.''

Public alertness can also reduce the danger. Some 80 percent of the 40 million coastal dwellers at risk have never been through a hurricane. They don't know what to expect and may show a corresponding lack of caution. Here is an opportunity for community education where a little knowledge could save many lives. The AMS urges a comprehensive approach. [See box.]

Such comprehensive action requires cooperation among federal, state, and local governments. It may take special federal funding. And it's certain to step on some developers' and property owners' toes. In short, the hurricane problem is a complex challenge. Yet the need to deal with it is urgent. Hurricane prediction never will be perfect. But there's no need to let ``iffy'' forecasts and unwise land use become sources of national tragedy. Storm readiness

The American Meteorological Society urges the following strategy be adopted:

1. Boost research on hurricane prediction.

2. Complete comprehensive evacuation studies for the entire US coastline to determine the magnitude of the hurricane problem.

3. Develop emergency procedures for cases when warnings can't get people out in time.

4. Adopt realistic growth-management regulations for hurricane risk areas.

5. Develop guidelines for instigating community action when hurricane warnings are uncertain.

6. Develop programs to educate the public about hurricane dangers and show how to make the most of forecasts and warnings. A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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