Last year hurricanes thrashed the United States mainland after several years' absence to surpass 1916 as the most economically damaging season ever, says Neal Frank, the irrepressible, crew-cut director of the National Hurricane Center here. Now hurricane season has returned, and while somewhat fewer hurricanes are expected this year than last, says Dr. Frank, Americans are more exposed to their stormy wrath than ever.
In an interview this week, Frank noted not only the steady growth of civilization into vulnerable and ill-prepared coastal communities but the particular dangers created by last year's hurricane ravages.
Six hurricanes and two tropical storms collided with the US coast causing $4 billion in damage. But none of the storms caused major catastrophe to human lives. Frank's concern is that people who weren't impressed with the storms, may let their guard down this year.
Hurricanes, after all, are a ``people problem,'' in Frank's view, and not natural disasters.
People continue to move into fast-growing and low-lying coastlands and islands that have been historically vulnerable to hurricanes. ``I'm not against development of the coastline,'' Frank says. ``But we've got deathtraps.''
The chief problems are the time it takes to evacuate coastal areas and the difficulty of predicting the path of a hurricane that far in advance. In Florida's Tampa Bay area, for example, evacuation time is about 25 hours and growing as the population increases. For officials to provide that much warning, however, means that all but one of every four or five evacuation warnings will end up as a false alarm. The cost can be loss of public credibility in the warnings.
Some states are beginning to take some action, Frank observes, ``but they are always strongly opposed.'' North Carolina has barred the building of seawalls, bulkheads, or jetties, since they erode the beaches that soften the approach of hurricane waves. Florida last year required builders to design for 140 m.p.h. winds in coastal areas, but bills to lower that standard are already pending.
The most vulnerable areas now? ``Anyplace with low offshore islands and lots of people,'' Frank says. He cites the west coast of Florida, the New Jersey coast, the Galveston Bay area of Texas, and the Florida Keys -- which have a single strand of highway as an evacuation route. And New Orleans, with the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Lake Pontchartrain on its north edge, the Mississippi on the south edge, and much of the city below sea level and protected by levies, ``is one of the most vulnerable cities in the country.''
Last year's hurricanes exposed the weaknesses of hurricane forecasting, Frank says. When the ``river of air'' that the storm rides in dries up, he says, forecasters have no idea where it will go or when the spinning top of air will change direction.