Isabel's Lessons

As reports and videos pour in showing the damage and disruption hurricane Isabel wrought in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., it's worth remembering the progress Americans have made in preparing for such storms.

It wasn't long ago that coastal residents had little clue that a hurricane was brewing in the Atlantic. The hurricane of 1938 slammed into an utterly unsuspecting Long Island and New England. The National Weather Service tracked the storm, but issued no hurricane warnings or evacuation orders - conventional wisdom had it that hurricanes never reached New England. More than 500 people were killed; many could have survived had they known they needed to leave.

Contrast that with today: Satellite photos days ago showed the then- Category 5 Isabel churning across the tropical ocean. Hurricane-hunter aircraft plunged again and again into the storm to gauge its strength and development. Reports went out on radio and television, and viewers could get minute-by-minute reports on The Weather Channel or the Internet. State and local authorities evacuated hundreds of thousands from coastal areas and low-lying inland sites.

Thankfully, Isabel made landfall as only a Category 2 storm and quickly lost power as it moved north. Rainfall totals were less than forecast, lessening inland flooding.

Every such storm teaches lessons: Too many people still foolishly defy evacuation orders. Authorities must consider more backup systems for water supplies. Utilities should review their preparatory procedures, intensify tree-trimming, and consider ways to make power lines less vulnerable.

Millions of Americans this summer have learned the value of basic disaster preparations, such as keeping stocks of bottled water. In a post-9/11 era, that's not a bad lesson, either.

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