Isabel's biggest threat: floods

Although the storm's winds have weakened, heavy rains may hit far inland.

The mops are ready. Storm drains are cleaned. And many residents in low-lying areas are heading to higher terra firma.

A wide swath of the Eastern United States is pulling on its boots for what officials expect will be widespread and serious flooding - now considered, instead of wind, to be the major threat from hurricane Isabel. Indeed, while TV cameras focus on wind-battered beaches, heavy rains further inland sometimes pack a storm's hardest punch.

Rivers, creeks, and brooks are all expected to overflow, forcing many Americans into emergency shelters. The flooding will continue through the weekend, officials say, since it will take days for the expected four to nine inches of rain to drain off.

But many communities are more prepared than ever before. That's because after years of dealing with hurricanes, nor'easters, and spring runoff, emergency management coordinators have learned that they need to get ready for flooding in advance.

This is also a message that has resonated with governors. In the case of Isabel, at least three governors - in Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia - have declared states of emergency. This permits them to order mandatory evacuations, shut down roads, and get National Guard units ready to help. It all happened before the first drop of rain fell.

"There is no question we are much better prepared. We have a better knowledge of the impacts of these things, and we learn something new with each storm," says Bob Shea, a senior adviser at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Previous deluges

Floods have occasionally devastated areas far from the coast. Hurricane Camille in 1969 killed 113 people in west central Virginia, as 12 to 28 inches of rain fell. And a painful lesson was hurricane Floyd, which affected nine states on the East Coast. In North Carolina alone, more than 50 people were killed by cascading waters. "It happened so rapidly. It was really an important learning tool," says Mr. Shea.

In fact, FEMA has already moved relief supplies into staging areas in Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort A.P. Hill, Va.; and Edison, N.J.

The public has also learned to take warnings more seriously, especially in the wake of Sept. 11, says Shea. "The key is when you take things seriously, you do the appropriate things."

There is little question that parts of North Carolina and Virginia will be hard hit. Some projections put the storm surge at seven to 11 feet, which would flood shoreline areas. Powerful winds will also blow water inland.

Meteorologists say one bright spot is that the storm will not hang around for long. "There will be less time to rain over a given location," says Thomas Baumgardner, National Weather Service hydrologist in charge for the mid-Atlantic region.

Because the storm is likely to race past, the National Weather Service is expecting flooding to be widespread, but not historic, says George McKillop, deputy chief of the hydrologic service division. "But there is no doubt it will disrupt some lives and wreck some havoc," he says.

That's why so many communities have been getting ready. In Cumberland, Md., workers cleared storm drains and began to move city recreation equipment, such as playground objects, away from low-lying areas. The city has been told to brace for six to 10 inches of rain.

But the city was not evacuating anyone because it was confident it could handle the rains, as long as they fell over a relatively long duration. "If it falls in six hours, we'll be in trouble. But if it's over 24 hours, we'll be OK," says Jeff Repp, city administrator.

Like many communities in the East, Cumberland had a soggy summer. As a result, the ground is already saturated, which could make trees more susceptible to being toppled by wind. Mr. Repp says the city is gearing up to clear downed trees.

Preparations elsewhere

In Lynchburg, Va., city managers held meetings days in advance to plan against the possibility of water and wind damage. Generators were tested, fuel tanks topped off, and the emergency operations center prepared. The city also set up separate accounts for any costs associated with Isabel in case there are FEMA reimbursements.

Flooding is a real possibility in Lynchburg, which is on the banks of the James River. During the last major storm to hit the area in 1986, the riverfront area flooded, says Kimball Payne, city manager. "We hope we don't have any flooding because this weekend, we're planning a couple of big events along that riverfront," he says.

Homeowners on rivers near the storm track have been busy moving furniture and anything valuable out of their basements. That's the case for Jane and Bruce Holly, whose house is on the South River in Annapolis, Md.

They have already moved their boat from its dock to a trailer. The lawn furniture is stowed. Family treasures are now on the second floor. But with the house only a few feet above sea level, Mrs. Holly has no illusions. "We're going with the premise some things are going to get wet," she says. "We can't haul it all up to the second floor."

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