Much of hurricane country unprepared for storms as heart of season arrives

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When a mild hurricane blew by here several weeks ago, with only a four-hour notice, the two-lane bridge to the mainland quickly developed a three-hour traffic jam. If a traveler was not at the front of the line, there was little point in trying to evacuate. As the heart of this year's hurricane season arrives, many of the populous lowlands of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts are in worse position than the North Carolina Outer Banks to weather the storms.

From Texas' Galveston Bay to Atlantic City, N.J., engineers and emergency planners see hurricane-country buildings as too weak to withstand hurricane wind and waves, and roads and bridges too narrow to evacuate people from vulnerable areas in time.

In some states, such as Florida and North Carolina, hurricane preparedness is improving. Elsewhere, such as in Texas, such efforts have not yet made any progress.

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The Outer Banks of North Carolina are sandy, low-lying barrier spits that jut well out into the wind-whipped Atlantic. The area is one of the state's fastest growing regions.

Yet for more than 120 miles, the only transportation links to the mainland are two ferries and two long, two-lane bridges. In any storm, the ferries stop running early on.

Last month's Hurricane Charlie skirted the Outer Banks and did little damage, but the choked traffic it caused served as a warning. ``We learned a lot about what can happen during tourist season,'' says Will Brothers, North Carolina's lead planner for natural disasters. ``Only so many cars can get over those bridges in a given time.''

Charlie became a hurricane, just barely, at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, the day that weekly summer cottage tenants leave and new renters come in. So traffic was heavy anyway. Charlie was scheduled to hit the coast in about four hours. Neither the state nor the county decided to order evacuation, which normally takes around 18 hours anyway.

Nevertheless, traffic quickly choked to a standstill. ``If Gloria, with its winds of 140 miles per hour, had followed the same path as Charlie with its winds of 75 m.p.h., we would have been in trouble,'' says George Spence, emergency management services director for Dare County.

``We need bridges and we need highways to take care of it all,'' says Mr. Spence, ``but we don't have them.''

Local planners count on the fact that a fiercer hurricane would have given far more notice than Charlie afforded. But officials at the National Hurricane Center in Miami have been preaching for years that long lead times can't be counted on; the technology for predicting landfall simply is not improving.

Nor are they likely to get state or federal money to add lanes to the long bridges that tie the banks to the mainland.

This week, the city of Nags Head is beginning to figure ways to manage development away from the most hazardous areas. Most waterfront houses here are wooden and sit from eight to 10 feet off the ground on pilings sunk at least eight feet into the ground. They are reasonably hurricane safe.

But even hard-blowing Northeasters sometimes carry the ocean over the sand dunes that protect the shore. And on the marshy inland shore, a hurricane could push water deep into the sound, then let it rock back up over barrier banks.

``If it was a choice between sticking it out and evacuating, I think I'd evacuate,'' says David Brower, associate director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Both North Carolina and Florida now have plans that require local governments to plan for hazards like hurricanes as they plan development. In the Outer Banks, he notes, ``most places are overbuilt now.'' Mr. Brothers agrees: ``The islands were never meant to be developed like they are.''

The strongest building standards against hurricane damage are in south Florida's Dade and Broward Counties. Ever since Miami was ravaged by a direct hit in 1926, south Floridians have been hurricane conscious. Much of the rest of the state, especially along the Gulf coast, is just as vulnerable and much less well prepared.

``On the west coast [of Florida], many of those buildings will not survive'' if hit by a hurricane, says Wen Chang, a civil engineering professor at the University of Miami. But the state has tightened its building codes this year, although not up to south Florida standards.

In Texas, Hurricane Alicia, which hit the Houston area in 1983, led to some recent proposals for more stringent building standards, but the proposals have yet to bear fruit at the state level. The hard-hit city of Galveston, however, now requires buildings to be able to withstand winds up to 140 m.p.h.

Stronger building codes always meet strong resistance. The cost of building an average apartment building to withstand 140 m.p.h. winds, rather than 100 m.p.h. winds, adds from 2 percent to 4 percent to the total cost of the structure, says Herb Saffir, a consulting engineer in Coral Gables, Fla.

``It's pretty tough to get a good code without a good storm,'' he explains.

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