In Isabel's wake, some lessons
Damage surprised many, but readiness efforts paid off.
EDENTON, N.C. — After splitting Hatteras Island in half and tossing beach cottages around like hacky sacks, hurricane Isabel aimed straight at Tony Burchett and his buddies.
Holed up at the Soundview Seafood restaurant on the cusp of Albemarle Sound, Mr. Burchett heard a terrifying roar across the muddy sound. "Some of us was scared," he says. Then trees started snapping and mobile homes began to tumble.
But while Isabel totaled most of the trailers in the park next to the restaurant, the storm spared Burchett's home - as well as his 1932 Ford Coupe. "You can only prepare so much," the scruffy logger says. "Then you just have to sit tight."
Indeed, despite being downgraded from a catastrophic storm, Isabel was the worst in the region since the 1933 blow that tore the Outer Banks to tatters. The storm claimed more lives than Hurricane Andrew of 1992, and left nearly 2 million homes and businesses still without power as of Sunday.
And despite what many experts say was a successful emergency response, Hurricane Isabel also revealed shortfalls in the nation's readiness for even well-announced emergencies. Beyond being ready with electrical crews and emergency supplies, officials faced the difficulty of managing residents' expectations as the hurricane's strength was questioned as it neared shore.
This storm "really shows the importance of long-term planning for short-term events," says Roger Pielke Jr., a researcher at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research in Boulder, Colo. "The success stories and failures from our experience with hurricanes constantly repeats that message."
Indeed, despite taking the shoulder hit from the roaring winds, the hurricane-battered North Carolina fared the best, counting only one wind-related casualty. In all, some 30 deaths had been linked to the storm as of Sunday, including some in road accidents.
Somehow, 300 people riding out the storm on Hatteras Island survived - some by clinging to trees - as the hurricane tore up motels, slung beach cottages into the sea - and even opened up a brand-new inlet between Hatteras Village and Frisco.
But it took many less experienced people further north and inland by shock. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner called Isabel "the worst storm in a generation."
To many, it was as if a gigantic, tree-snapping tornado swirled from the Banks, across Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, and then up into the heart of Virginia. Thousands of trees snapped in half, and floods meant tapwater was declared undrinkable from North Carolina to Baltimore. For parts of Friday, Old Town Alexandria was under water, with kayakers drifting by soggy coffee shops. The capital shut down for two days. In Bertie County, N.C., nearly 80 percent of homes were damaged.
"We prepared, but I wasn't expecting this," says Mearp Peeples, who watched from a friend's house as a stand of fallen pines destroyed most of her Edenton, N.C., neighborhood - including her brick ranch. "The trees were snapping like matchsticks."
Insurance claims, minus government-supported flood insurance, may run to as much as a $1 billion.
But for many, a deeper economic impact will soon be felt: In Colerain, N.C., dozens of people were out of work for good as Perry-Wynn's Fishery lay in total ruin. In and around Creswell, N.C., silos lay ripped apart as farmers picked over ruined crops. The bulk of the force came across Albemarle Sound and slashed into historic Edenton, ripping porches off seaside antebellum homes and wrecking nearly 70 percent of the city's proud old-growth trees.
Still, experts say forecasters, emergency managers, and residents themselves managed to calibrate the storm fairly well, as tens of thousands evacuated the Outer Banks before the storm.
Emergency managers credit the response with "keeping our casualty numbers to absolute minimum," says says Gary Faltinowski, an emergency manager with the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management in Raleigh. What's more, over 16,000 people sought shelter in the storm, including thousands of Spanish-speaking North Carolinians who had largely been left out of preparations for 1999's Hurricane Floyd. This time, Gov. Mike Easley signed an executive order to restore power to a Spanish-only station after the storm.
Governor Easley said he was also impressed with the federal government's response. "This is the first time in my career that a federal agency has called me before I called them," he told reporters at a news conference with US Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge.
Still, some counties had to adapt to situations for which they weren't prepared. In Hertford County, 12 sheriff's cruisers were stuck under a fallen pecan tree. Some counties instituted curfews over the weekend, partly to thwart looters. In Virginia, a lack of preparation led to frustration, as gas pumps remained closed and food rotted in warm refrigerators.
"When we say we need to be prepared for hurricanes, this is why," says Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management in Richmond. "When it weakened down to a Category 2, people started not taking it as seriously ... [but] I'm not sure anybody was prepared for this level of damage."
Thousands still thronged the Virginia and North Carolina beaches this weekend for the post-hurricane bluebird skies.
The sunshine seemed to help even the storm-struck, as farmers hiked up their overalls and boys stripped off their shirts to cut through the tons of debris left behind by the storm. "All I've got now is my rake and my back," says Mr. Burchett on Albemarle Sound.
On Hatteras, many braved debris-filled waters to bring food and water to 300 stranded inhabitants.
In Edenton, tractors tugged at fallen trees as residents watched in wonder. Sybel Harrell says she felt safe: The folks who built her house in the 1830s anchored it to an old oak stump on the property. But across the street, a tree had cut a historic Federal home in half. "We looked out and saw tin roofs flying," says Ms.. Harrell. "Next time, I'm not sure I'll stay."
Around North Carolina's sounds, teams of farmers in tractors didn't wait for authorities, but at sunrise began chainsawing passable lanes on the highways. "The state trucks came up here, but they were too small to do anything," says Ms. Peeples. "But then some local guys came up and just started cutting."
After all the hatch-battening, Isabel also caused many of those in her path to reflect on the tiny comforts - and wonders - of life and community. On Friday, one woman on Hatteras found a bird feeder toppled over and discovered a finch at the bottom of it. She pried it out, fearing the worst. "But then a little eye blinked," she told an emergency radio program. She opened her hand, and the bird flew away.