US eyes whirling 'Isabel'

Spending his first summer on a little spit of sand called Salvo on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, shopkeeper Michael Jackson spent Monday hauling his fishing lures, ice chests, and soda supplies into the attic. Next up is reinforcing the tie-downs on his mobile home out back.

Having come from the Jersey Shore, the new owner of the Fishin' Hole knows about nor'easters. But what he doesn't know about the kind of storm breathing down the neck of the East Coast makes him, he says, "very nervous."

One of thousands who have moved to hurricane alleys since America's last catastrophic storm, Hurricane Andrew, Mr. Jackson now finds himself on the frontlines of Hurricane Isabel, a "monster" expected to make landfall Thursday morning.

Evacuation began Monday as meteorologists sized up the storm and residents started nervously joking about "waitin' and seein' " about its path. But most felt in their guts that this was real - and that it may well be the most powerful storm in their memories.

No one expects Isabel to take the human toll of the Galveston storm of 1900, or the massive storm that nearly obliterated the Keys in 1919.

But as Isabel roars toward the coast, her arrival is a grim test not just for "OBXers," but for a country that continues to place billions of dollars of real estate in the way of storms' inevitable lashings. Despite new laws, building codes, and insurance regulations, the influx of coastal newcomers has largely sabotaged any culture of concern.

"People who are socialized within the culture of hurricanes or massive phenomena make their peace with it," says Louis Perez, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who's studied Caribbean hurricanes' impact on island life. "It's different for people who move into harm's way without having been socialized into that. The shock comes with people who ... know the risks, but have never fully understood the risks."

That, of course, is an apt description of many OBXers of the Outer Banks. Yet the hazy sense of risk comes in part from a void of danger: The five deadliest storms all happened over 65 years ago. In the 1900 Galveston storm, meteorologists judging weather mostly by barometric pressure and cloud cover drastically miscalculated the swell until two terrible surges met on Main Street. As those in rowboats tried to save the drowning, up to 12,000 people disappeared. Half are thought to have perished; the others salvaged only the clothes on their backs.

In 1919, the third-deadliest storm in US history killed 600 in Key West, most of whom were on boats - and the gale nearly took along the entire key.

But it's not just the South that gets stuck with hurricanes: In 1938, 560 died when a storm crashed into New England, destroying 2,600 boats and nearly decimating the region's fishing fleet.

Despite destruction, the means of coping - at least bureaucratically - have changed, and in many ways, the nation is better equipped to deal with massive damage now than at any other point in its history. Just as early warning systems are saving lives, insurance adjusters and lawmakers have moved, to different extents, to safeguard property.

Hurricanes have spurred new building codes and even animal-rescue leagues, since Floyd left thousands of pets and farm animals on the coastal plain. They've grown far less deadly - and far more costly. Andrew, for instance, cost $25 billion, but killed only 23.

Florida has led the way for progressive wind-zone policies, including a trust fund to retain insurers after Andrew. Tough new building laws, the "Dade County Standard," now define legislation in coastal areas nationwide.

Coastal dwellers are now often asked to pay more for insurance. Last week, the House Financial Services Committee passed a bill limiting how many times homeowners in flood zones can claim FEMA emergency insurance. But House sources said the measure was "watered down" - from "two floods and you're out" to "five floods and you may be out."

When Mr. Jackson bought a mobile home in Salvo, regulations required he tie it to the ground. Homes built of wood are now required to have "hurricane straps" tying the mainframe to the roof. But in North Carolina, the building-code council stopped short of mandating window shutters - though windows are often a house's weak point, allowing gusts tear a house apart.

Yet many in the building trades resist meticulous mandates; even hurricane experts agree that storm-proof houses may not be feasible. "The return period of a catastrophic storm is on the order of 100 years, and it just plain doesn't make sense to increase the cost of houses and make them unaesthetic to make them absolutely survivable," says Hugh Willoughby, a professor at the International Hurricane Research Center in Miami.

On the coast, many question the wisdom of hundreds of large new homes built to please beach-dwellers, mansions with bold designs that challenge the tides - and the storms. A Miami newspaper found that many new $300,000 homes in Dade County would tremble at 74 mph winds.

Critics say more must be done. They lament a mixture of bravado, economics, and generational ignorance that they fear endangers the population in hurricane-prone coastal areas as it swells from 52 million in 1970 to 70 million today. "In [1919], you had a killer hurricane that just about wiped out Key West," says Mr. Perez. "You visit Key West today, you just shake your head and say, 'Look at this construction, haven't these people heard of a hurricane?' There's a gambling spirit there."

That gambling spirit is alive on the banks: a narrow strip of sand home to most of the world's ship wrecks. It's a tourist mecca and a boating paradise that serves up delicious lounging - and dangerous, sudden storms, fueled by the Gulf Stream. Tropical Depression Henri has already buffeted the thin sands for two weeks, changing the landscape before surfers' eyes. Hurricanes Floyd and Dennis in 1999 left parts of Route 12 - the main road down the banks - under piles of sand.

From the Ace Hardware on Hatteras Island, assistant manager Jim Edwards watched as about 300 people came in for batteries, nails, and bungee cords. He'll likely pick up a few things himself: His house doesn't have shutters and he's planning to board up the windows.

Most residents will leave, Mr. Edwards says. But some will stay, generators buzzing. How wise that is with an 18-foot storm surge possible is not clear.

And Mr. Jackson of the Fishin' Hole? His mobile home in Salvo is reinforced for 120 m.p.h. winds. "I'm boarding up my windows and probably by Wednesday [will] take my money and head west," he says. "I knew the risks and I moved here anyway."

America's 3 record storms

- John Dillin

Category 5 hurricanes are rare. Only three came ashore on the American mainland during the 20th Century. Now Hurricane Isabel, one of the most powerful storms ever, is bearing down on the East Coast.

Isabel has oscillated between a Category 5 (winds over 155 miles per hour) and a Category 4 (131-to-155 m.p.h.). A "4" is considered "extreme." A "5" is rated "catastrophic," according to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane-damage scale.

While high winds are a hurricane's primary feature, its most destructive quality can be the storm surge that sends a wall of seawater across islands and shore fronts.

The three Category 5 hurricanes of the past century were:

• Labor Day hurricane of Sept. 2-3, 1935 (Florida Keys). The death toll was 423, including 259 World War I veterans living in government camps.

An article in the Monthly Weather Review reported that from Tavenier to Vaca Keys - a 30-mile segment of the island chain - "the destruction of buildings, roads, viaducts, and bridges was practically complete."

Many of the casualties came from a 15-foot surge of ocean water that swept people, homes, and cars into the sea. The winds, estimated at 200 m.p.h., created a blast of sand that added to the death toll.

• Hurricane Camille of Aug. 17-18, 1969 (Mississippi and Louisiana). With wind speeds up to 210 m.p.h., Camille destroyed approximately 5,000 homes and heavily damaged another 40,000. A report on the storm by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the storm tide that came ashore was so high (perhaps 30 feet deep) that "one survivor was washed over the city of Pass Christian without encountering any utility poles, buildings, or trees."

One of the great surprises from Camille was that it reformed again as it passed over land and dropped 12 to 28 inches of rain on parts of Virginia. Floods in that state killed 113 people, with another 39 never accounted for.

• Hurricane Andrew of Aug. 24, 1992 (Miami-Dade County, Fla.). Beginning as a weak tropical wave in the mid-Atlantic, Andrew got little attention in the US. Even when it came ashore just south of Miami, it was still a small storm, but extremely powerful.

Andrew, which had sustained winds of 165 m.p.h., is considered the costliest storm to ever hit the US, with total damage estimated at more than $25 billion (in 1992 dollars). Andrew killed 23 people, destroyed or damaged 135,000 homes (including mobile homes), left 160,000 people homeless, and wiped out 86,000 jobs. Afterwards, many people moved permanently out of the Miami area.

Driving through South Dade County hours after the storm, a reporter could see hundreds of homes smashed into kindling. Even large, steel-framed buildings were heavily damaged and twisted. Because the storm was small in area, destruction was less than it might have been. If Andrew had come ashore just 20 miles to the north, much of downtown Miami could have been devastated.

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