Texas looks for lessons despite Gilbert's turn from coast. Experts say building codes and zoning laws need improvement

The sound beneath the Texas Gulf Coast palms this weekend was not the fury of Gilbert but a collective sigh of relief as residents returned to their homes in a region relatively unscathed by what had been billed the most powerful hurricane of the century. Public safety officials from Brownsville to the Louisiana coast expressed satisfaction with advance preparedness for Gilbert and the orderly evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents.

Meanwhile, Mexico, which bore the brunt of Gilbert's fury, continued to dig out from the storm. Heavy rains that turned usually dry rivers into raging torrents were responsible for at least 200 deaths in Monterrey. Texas was also struck by scores of tornadoes spawned by Gilbert. San Antonio was particularly hard hit.

But as plywood was pulled from storefronts and uprooted trees removed, some people worried that the storm's failure to turn north and slam the Texas coast head-on might lull coastal residents into complacency.

``We hope people don't take this as a sign that they don't need to take the next one so seriously,'' said Laureen Chernow of the Governor's Division of Emergency Management in Texas.

``People who did the smart thing, that is leave the area, are now going to return home and face the people who didn't leave, who did the dumb thing,'' says Neil Frank, chief meteorologist for KHOU-TV in Houston and former director of the National Hurricane Center. ``What they did by driving to a shelter in Austin was take out an insurance policy - not on a boat or a house, but on their lives.''

Gilbert was a warning, Dr. Frank and other experts say, that such a huge, powerful storm will eventually strike directly at populated centers of the gulf. More must be done, they say, to strengthen and enforce existing building codes, as well as to discourage the rampant development of coastal zones - especially the barrier islands that are the region's first line of defense.

``The more people you have out on the barrier islands especially, the more difficult and time-consuming evacuation is,'' says Ms. Chernow. ``A place like Galveston Island takes too long to evacuate for people to just wait and see until three or four hours before the storm hits.''

In Brownsville, acting City Manager Steve Fitzgibbons said he believes Gilbert's missed rendezvous with his city, following a similar experience with Hurricane Allen in 1980, will actually encourage residents' vigilance before any future threatening storms.

Both Allen and Gilbert provided the city with important training in disaster preparedness, he said. But Mr. Fitzgibbons added that this summer's collapse of a downtown store's rain soaked roof, which killed 14 people, also taught Brownsville some important lessons.

``That really drove home the importance of having lots of mobile communications, and all sorts of equipment ready,'' he said. For the first time, lists of private contractors who could help in rescue and cleanup efforts were compiled.

More than 43 million people live in hurricane-prone coastal counties from Texas to Maine, according to researchers at Texas A&M University's Sea Grant College Program, and an estimated 80 percent of them have never experienced a direct hit by a hurricane.

Texas is alone among the nation's 30 states with coastline in not having adopted a coastal zone management program. Both Florida and North Carolina, the two other most hurricane-prone states, have implemented stringent coastal development and building standards.

Texas Gov. William Clements Jr. told the Monitor last week that he favors state action to limit and standardize development in coastal areas. ``There has to be a middle ground here that makes sense,'' between local officials, landowners and developers, and public safety and environmental protection, Governor Clements said. ``To allow building development in some of these vulnerable areas, that's just plain stupid.''

Coastal experts say development of barrier islands is especially foolhardy because it accelerates erosion of a crucial line of defense for the mainland.

KHOU-TV's Frank says he does not believe that all barrier island development should be halted, but he says requiring building setbacks beyond high water lines makes sense. Texas's South Padre Island, with its row of high-density beach-front development, is a perfect example of what shouldn't happen, he says.

Some states have gone too far with specific coastal regulations, others say. Kishor Mehta, an associate with the Institute for Disaster Research at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, says ``the pendulum swung too far in Florida'' several years ago when the state decided to require that everything be constructed for 140 miles-per-hour winds. An uproar led to a change in that regulation.

But Dr. Mehta says comprehensive coastal specifications such as Florida's are a positive step.

``What's needed is that everyone - researchers, engineers, insurance companies, developers, and legislatures - work together, and not just say that increasing wind speed specifications will solve the safety problem,'' he says.

Noting that simple adoption and enforcement of existing codes would do much, Mehta adds, ``We can do a lot more together than just change one factor of building design.''

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