Getting smart as storms rush in

When the hurricane that was to become the worst natural disaster in North American history struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900, few people took more than a curious note of such storms. The morning of the day the storm hit, work schedules were disrupted - not because people were evacuating the island, but because the sight of giant waves blasting piers and bathhouses along the Gulf beaches was too much to miss. By evening, it was clear the lack of warning and the nonchalance about the storm had abetted the devastation. More than 6,000 people perished, and much of the city lay in ruins.

These days no one, except the occasional newcomer that oldtimers grouse about, takes an approaching hurricane anything less than seriously. Officials set emergency operations in motion days in advance of predicted landfall, while 24-hour weather stations keep residents updated on the notoriously fickle movement of hurricanes.

Boarding-up of windows, gathering of supplies, and evacuation of low-lying areas can begin days before the storm is expected to hit, especially with a storm like Gilbert, which is the strongest now on record.

In Brownsville, which yesterday was under a hurricane warning - meaning a storm is very likely to strike - emergency workers said response plans were well in motion for Gilbert's anticipated Friday arrival.

``We're preparing 30 shelters that should be ready by [Thursday] afternoon,'' said Hinojosa Timo, a civil defense coordinator for Cameron County. Shelters, most of them schools, are selected for their sturdy construction and location outside flood zones.

City and county officials were also busy coordinating radio and vehicle locations for during the storm, ``to make sure our transportation and communication lines are spread out,'' added Mr. Hinojosa. ``We don't want to be caught with everything in one place if we're needed somewhere else.''

In Corpus Christi, authorities were busy evacuating low-lying areas and preparing shelters. ``People are responding wisely to this storm,'' said Sgt. John Schultz with the Corpus Christi Police Department. ``No one's ignoring it, but neither is there any panic.''

Coastal evacuations were recommended as far away as the Louisiana coast. Texas Gov. Bill Clements issued an emergency proclamation allowing local officials to temporarily suspend regulations in the interest of public safety. This could include altering traffic flow to facilitate evacuation.

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