Many of the Atlantic and Gulf coastal communities in areas most frequently it by hurricanes over the past century are poorly prepared to respond to them. Inadequate evacuation plans and overbuilding on vulnerable barrier islands and low-lying coastal stretches are the key problems, according to hurricane specialists and preparedness experts.
As in the case of last year's most destructive hurricanes, David and Frederic , and now with hurricane Allen, communities hit learn valuable lessons.
Officials in Mobile, Ala., where Frederic hit, and in Miami, where David almost hit, say they have improved their evacuation plans of last year, though the plans worked fairly well in both places.
But it is the many communities that have not been hit, or at least not recently, that have disaster preparedness officials concerned.
"Each year we build more and more on the coasts and have more and more problems," says Neil Frank, director of the National Hurrican Center.
"There's a lot of communities that haven't found how long is needed to get out [in case of a hurricane], says Dr. Frank.
What is needed, according to hurricane experts and preparedness officials is:
* More precise evacuation plans for vulnerable coastal areas.
* More families drawing up their own emergency plans. These plans should include temporary food and water supplies, buying gas for the car before the storm gets too close and assembling family members early for evacuation to a preselected, high-ground site inland.
* Either reduced building on vulnerable barrier islands or stronger antistorm construction requirements.
The National Hurricane Center normally is able to give communities only a 12 -hour warning that they are likely to be hit directly by a hurricane. Earlier warnings cover a broader area and are less precise.
But many communities need more than 12 hours to evacuate, some experts say.
Lee County, Fla., which includes Fort Myers and several islands, updated its evacuation plan last year and found it would take 20 hours to get people out of the hurricane danger area.
It would take 36-48 hours to evacuate the Florida Keys, says Robert Wilkerson , chief of the state's Bureau of Disaster Preparedness. The current local evacuation plan for the Keys is so lacking it would be "utterly catastrophic" if a major hurricane hit there, he warns.
With the exception of the Fort Myers and Tampa areas, Florida coastal communities "do not have adequate evacuation plans," he says his recent studies show. Even Dade County (which includes Miami) is "not to the point we'd like it."
Speaking of the entire Atlantic and Gulf coasts, hurricane expert Earl J. Baker, of Florida State University warns: "I'm convinced very few places have done detailed studies" on the amount of time needed to evacuate.
Even where 12 hours may be adequate, about three hours is lost in calling up extra traffic light repair crews, drivers of evacuation buses, and extra police, and other emergency personnel, says Bob Pifer, assistant forecaster at the National Hurricane Center. Another three hours is lost due to overcrowded roads and roads cut off by the storm, he says his recent study of Atlantic and Gulf coast communities shows.
Given these facts, says the Center's director, Dr. Frank, government officials are either going to have to (1) order evacuations earlier -- before it is certain in area will be hit; or (2) come up with some better way of protecting people in highly vulnerable areas such as the off-shore islands.
One suggestion he has: require builders in highly vulnerable areas to meet special antihurricane construction standards.
At the same time, these buildings could be required to have wider hallways to accommodate evacuees in emergencies. Local government could bear some of the added construction costs through tax breaks, Dr. Frank suggests.
In one of the most vulnerable areas in the United States -- the Florida Keys -- local officials insist on wanting to evacuate the lower half of the Keys to Key West. But there are adequate shelter places for only 3,000 persons there and the city is only 15 feet above sea level, says Florida disaster preparedness chief Wilkerson. On a typical hurricane season day there may be 30,000 residents and up to 60,000 tourists in the lower half of the Keys, he says, and storm tides can surge to 25 feet.
Evacuees must drive the 120-mile, two-lane road to the mainland, he says, awkward as that may be.
Dade County evacuated some 10,000 persons, many of them elderly, last year as hurricane David approached. But many of them were "dumped" in front of overcrowded shelters, says Ralph Barlow, director of disaster services for the Southeastern field office of the American Red Cross.
This time radio communications have been improved between shelters and disaster headquarters to avoid overcrowding. And more medical support personnel are on standby, says Connie Borgshulte, country disaster coordinator.
In Alabama, Dauphin Island's bridge to the mainland was destroyed by hurrican Frederic. Now state officials are considering ordering early evacuations (which take longer by boat) if a storm begins to approach.
Mobile officials said some 100,000 evacuated the county last year but expect twice that many this year if a hurricane begins to approach the city.
"During the past 100 years, the Texas coast, Louisiana delta, southeast Florida and the Keys, Cape Hatteras [N.C.], and Cape Code [Mass.] have been the hot spots [for hurricanes]" says Bob Case, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center.