Uncle Sam Primed and Ready for Felix

WHEN hurricane Andrew ripped through south Florida in 1992, the federal government waited until the Sunshine State's governor asked for help before sending in supplies and disaster experts.

There is now a gale of a difference in the government's response.

Even before Felix had vented its destructive 80-mile-per-hour winds and 5-to-10-foot storm surge on North Carolina's outer banks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was mobilizing. FEMA had its disaster response "blue team " at Fort Bragg, N.C., where its 125 specialists could get to storm-ravaged areas quickly. Although FEMA is working with North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, it didn't wait for his SOS call.

"We've learned a lot. FEMA has changed its whole response to disaster as a result of hurricane Andrew, " says Richard Krimm, FEMA's associate director for response and recovery.

While those who have lost homes or loved ones to the storm may find little solace in the change, others will welcome the faster arrival of federal disaster specialists.

An urban search-and-rescue team - the same group that searched for survivors in the Oklahoma City bombing wreckage - were waiting to look for missing people. And, food, water, and shelter have already been readied. If the front-line "blue team " needs help, the government is set to call in its "red " or "white" teams.

FEMA may have its hands full. At press time, the wind speeds clocked by Felix gave it a relatively weak Category 1 hurricane rating. The worst storms are Category 5, with winds in excess of 155 m.p.h. But Felix is big, churning up waves along the Eastern seaboard and forcing summer vacationers inland and closing beaches from North Carolina to Maine.

Felix battered Bermuda on Monday and Tuesday, leaving thousands of residents without electricity and forcing the postponement of a vote on independence from Britain.

Not only is FEMA better prepared for this hurricane, but many East Coast communities have also enacted tougher building codes in recent years in order to qualify for federal flood insurance. "In the past you could have widespread damage for some distance from the beach, " explains Bob Byrne, a geologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester, Va.

But now almost all beach-area structures must be elevated on pilings that reduce the rate of loss. New buildings must be set back from the beach. And, many structures have "tear away " areas that can be sacrificed to the storm without affecting the structural integrity of the whole building. "Those properties that are not immediately bearing the brunt of the waves will be less damaged, " says Mr. Byrne.

Some shoreline experts still expect Felix to cause a lot of damage. "This could be the erosion event of the century, " predicts Orrin Pilkey, a professor at Duke University.

Despite the building code improvements, Pilkey says the boom in coastline construction increases the potential damage toll. "We are building in most states just as though events like this could not happen, " he says. "We are in worse shape than we have ever been - we are building more and more shoreline retreats. "

Pilkey points to Sandbridge, Va. as an example of bad beachfront development. Erosion has washed away most of the sand in front of some beachfront cottages. Residents have built a 12-foot high sheet metal seawall that Pilkey says is likely to collapse under Felix's giant waves. "The walls will be caving in and it make for spectacular photos, " predicts Pilkey.

One of the major reasons why beachfront development continues is federal flood insurance. This spring Jane and Bruce Holly bought a beach house at Bethany Beach, Del. "To know that it was federally insured made it a doable property to buy, " says Mrs. Holly.

Even before Felix hit, Bruce Hardaway, a coastal Virginia resident, had filled out a claims form. With an expected storm surge of five feet, says Mr. Hardaway, "the water will be up over my living room floor - it's the cost of living on the coast. "

A former Congressional specialist on flood insurance says disaster assistance costs are "escalating at an alarming rate." After floods this spring, the claims were so high that for only the third time in its history, the Federal Insurance Administration (FIA) borrowed $190 million from the US Treasury. It's too early to know if the agency will need to borrow to cover expected losses from Felix.

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