A hurricane's warning (again): improve storm protection

As the fury of hurricane Alicia began to subside Thursday after causing major wind and flood damage and loss of life in the Galveston-Houston area, national hurricane forecasters pointed out that:

1. Federal flood insurance continues to spur rapid development of low-lying, vulnerable coastal shores and coastal barrier islands. But safety standards to get the insurance have been strengthened somewhat.

2. Most coastal communities have not developed adequate evacuation plans, although a few, such as Fort Myers, Fla., have made progress in doing so.

3. A promising evacuation method - going inland only a few blocks and up into higher floors of sturdy high-rises - could save more lives in some cases. Some officials in Florida are examining liability questions of such plans now.

4. Greater use of shutters would reduce the threat of flying glass in major storms, says Bob Sheets, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla. In Houston and Galveston, some windows were reported blown out by the force of the wind.

Galveston Island, where the hurricane came ashore early Thursday, is ''a nice area,'' Mr. Sheets says, but residents ''apparently had not learned from history.''

In 1900 the worst single hurricane to hit the United States smashed into the island, killing some 6,000 people in the area, says Neil Frank, director of the center. A 17-foot sea wall was built as protection against further disaster, but today some condominiums have been built on the sea side of the wall and another one is being built, he said.

''That has to be considered a very questionable development,'' Mr. Frank said in a telephone interview after Hurricane Alicia came ashore in Texas.

But such construction is typical of what is occurring in many areas of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the US, according to these forecasters and other emergency planners.

And in areas covered by federal flood insurance, inland taxpayers end up bailing out those whose property is damaged by coastal storms, because insurance payments do not cover claims, says Frank. He says this is unfair to most taxpayers.

While many communities have evacuation plans, most require a longer warning time to trigger them than the National Hurricane Center can provide. The Tampa, Fla., area, for example, which director Frank says has one of the best regional plans in the nation, may require at least 20 hours' advance notice, according to latest estimates from officials there.

But the hurricane center can often provide no more than a 12-hour advance notice of a hurricane heading toward a community.

And as was seen in the Galveston area this week, many residents do not leave an area anyway, even in the face of a hurricane. Texas civil-defense officials report that only about 50,000 people along a 200-mile stretch of coastline chose to evacuate, while hundreds of thousands stayed.

Faced with this, some planners in areas hit by hurricanes are considering designating some high-rises a few blocks inland as shelters. All but the lower floors would be above the surge of tide that often sweeps in with a hurricane. The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, for which he works, has applied for federal funding to study the question of who is liable if such a refuge should collapse with evacuees in it.

Meanwhile, the council distributes about 750,000 hurricane evacuation maps a year in the area, and held a small-scale evacuation drill last year in which more than 100 persons were moved. By contrast, Texas distributed some 800,000 hurricane preparedness brochures for the whole coast, and has not held more than a ''table-top'' evacuation drill (discussion), says an official there.

Galveston Mayor E. Gus Manuel was quoted by United Press International as criticizing Texas Gov. Mark White for encouraging evacuation of the Galveston Island area. ''Galveston is prepared to ride this out,'' the mayor said. Forecaster Sheets estimated damage from Alicia may run as high as $2 billion.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.