Hurricane-rusty Texans spared

After two decades of below-average storm seasons, are Gulf Coast's

As a lifelong resident of Corpus Christi, Texas, Frank Tompkins knows the power of a storm.

Hurricane Celia, which struck the Corpus area in August 1970, took his real estate office in nearby Portland. Hurricane Carla, which struck a little farther north in Matagorda Bay, killed dozens of people in 1961 and made a daring young television reporter, Dan Rather, into a household name.

But when hurricane Bret marched ashore late Sunday, Mr. Tompkins did what he has done since 1935. He boarded up and hunkered down.

"I'm slow to board up my house because it's a bear to get down," he chuckles. "But who wants to be a fool?"

That kind of practical experience, however, is not as common as it used to be in these parts. After a two-decade lull in hurricane intensity along the Gulf Coast, meteorologists are warning that this season could turn out to be busier than usual - surprising newcomers who have flocked there over the past 20 years.

"If you look at the development in coastal areas in the 1970s and '80s, which were below-average storm seasons, we have created a very inexperienced population for storms," says Frank Lapore, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla.

"Now that we're getting back to an average storm cycle, we have more people with less experience and real danger to life and property," he says.

For many, hurricane Bret turned out to be little more than a valuable practice session.

Texans and emergency officials breathed a gigantic sigh of relief Sunday as the storm, with sustained winds of 140 m.p.h., came ashore in the most sparsely populated county on the Texas coast.

STILL, hurricane Bret was the strongest storm to hit Texas in 20 years. Meteorologists compared it with hurricane Andrew, which killed 40 people in Florida and the central Gulf Coast states in 1992.

"This storm could not have gone into a better location than it did," says Jud Ladd, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, Texas. "If this storm had come ashore in a more populated area, we may have experienced more significant problems."

But as hurricane Bret continues its soggy march inland toward Laredo, bringing anywhere from 10 to 25 inches of rainfall to some very parched portions of south Texas, meteorologists say the 1999 hurricane season is only beginning.

Some weather models are predicting a busier-than-usual storm season this year, with 14 named storms, nine of them hurricanes, and four of those major hurricanes such as Bret. (An average storm season brings 10 named storms, two of which are major hurricanes.)

History proves that tropical weather should not be overestimated, even if building codes and modern communications have decreased the numbers of storm-related deaths.

The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, for instance, killed more than 8,000 people, mostly due to storm surge. Hurricane Mitch, a category-5 storm, killed nearly 11,000 people in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

While weather officials are grateful that a powerful storm like Bret carried less of a punch, they fret that Americans may become more blas about storms. "When you have a storm like this, which is essentially a near miss, people will say, 'Well, we have experienced a major storm and that wasn't so bad,' " says Mr. Lapore.

Overall, state emergency-management officials are pleased with the public response to Bret. An estimated 25,000 residents of Corpus Christi and North Padre Island evacuated low-lying areas. Most drove inland to San Antonio, where they found shelter in the barracks of the now-defunct Kelly Air Force Base.

In Kenedy County, where the storm hit land, nearly all the county's 460 residents evacuated as well, most of them employees at the storied King Ranch. Ranch officials said there was not enough time to move the county's largest population: 55,000 head of cattle.

BUT state officials also worry that residents, especially newcomers, may believe that the threat has passed, just because the wind has died down. High winds and bending palm trees may make for great TV footage, but the true danger of a storm lies in storm surges, flash floods, and torrential rains.

"Everyone has gone out and bought their [sport-utility vehicles], so they think, 'I can go just about anywhere,' because they see people do it on TV commercials," says Don Rogers of the Texas Department of Emergency Management in Austin. "But they don't realize it only takes 18 inches of water to lift a car off the pavement. It's not the size of the vehicle, it's how much tire tread is on the ground."

Others say media hype could leave newcomers and oldtimers jaded and overconfident. After all, how many times can one hear the term "storm of the century"?

But down in Brownsville, Bill Connor is just as happy this storm has passed. As the owner of Sea Garden Sales, an industrial and marine supply business down at the Port of Brownsville, Mr. Connor has seen more than his fair share of excitement this summer. The building next door to his business burned to the ground last week. His twins have just hit the "terrible twos." And then hurricane Bret threatened to strike Brownsville head on.

"I said, 'What next? Locusts?' " Connor says. Fortunately, the storm continued northward, bringing only some needed rainfall and some needed business.

"We sold 30,000 sandbags on Saturday. Home Depot called up, saying, 'We've got sand but no sandbags.' It was crazy."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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