YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Unprepared States From Maine to Texas Prey to Killer Storms : Disaster planning: As the hurricane season begins, dozens of communities are ill-prepared for catastrophe.


As the 1994 hurricane season opens this month, years of complacency have left significant sections of the East and Gulf coasts vulnerable to death and destruction.

Communities from Maine to Texas remain ill-prepared for the killer storms that could spin out of the Atlantic this summer and fall.

While an Associated Press survey of emergency directors in hurricane states noted a surge in federal concern and a growing professionalism among local officials, it also found troubling gaps in readiness:

* A number of states still await detailed computer projections that can accurately predict storm flooding from an approaching hurricane. Puny federal funding is the culprit.

* In some jurisdictions, the crucial role of hurricane planning and emergency coordination is filled by part-timers with tiny budgets. One county emergency director could not even recall his evacuation routes.

* Some evacuation routes are frail and untried. They include flood-prone highways and choke points along bridges and causeways. When tested, some routes have clotted in bumper-to-bumper traffic that would be at the mercy of an onrushing storm.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., emergency director B. T. Kennedy fears a bottleneck where 18 northbound lanes on the turnpike and I-95 collapse into five. This could freeze the traffic flow headed north from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale. He imagines a hurricane "overtaking this gridlock and causing an enormous number of casualties."

"This scares the hell out of us," he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has tried to help, tripling funds for hurricane programs to $2.8 million this year, with plans to push it past $7 million in 1995. But Director James Lee Witt admits it will take time before the money buys results.

"We still have a long way to go," he said.

The attempt to revitalize the nation's hurricane program comes after a 30-year lull in storms that took the urgency out of storm preparation.

This lethargy often meant perfunctory appointments and limited budgets. In many communities, the role of emergency manager has been designated a volunteer position or an addendum to a county employee's job description.

The AP survey found many counties staffed with full-time directors who have received extensive training from FEMA and the National Weather Service Hurricane Center.

But for some emergency directors, the job is just a sidelight to other careers--among them, seafood wholesaling, teaching physical education and working in a paper mill.

Alan Pierce, the emergency management director for Franklin County in Florida's Panhandle, has an offbeat take on how he got the job. "I guess I had all my teeth," he said. "I got it because at the time they were looking to fill the position, mostly responding to FEMA requests."

Pierce, the county planner, admitted his experience in emergency management is "very limited." He said his rural county does not have an evacuation plan because there is only one way out.

Tom Miller, the emergency planner for Nueces County, Tex., had trouble recalling evacuation routes or the name of his counterpart in Corpus Christi, a city of 260,000 in his jurisdiction.

Miller, the county's building maintenance director, has a tiny hurricane budget. The county conducts no public education program to prepare the public for a storm.

"I really don't spend a lot of time on emergency management myself," he said.

Robert Parker has had training in nine years as the volunteer emergency management director for McIntosh County, Ga., but evacuating 9,500 people won't be easy. Escape routes are limited, and a computer that provides crucial storm data was damaged by a falling ceiling. There are no funds for repairs.

"Money is a problem in a small county," Parker said.

The federal government has also been guilty of under-funding hurricane preparedness. For years, FEMA's annual hurricane budget was an unwavering $896,000. By comparison, $22 million was spent on earthquake programs last year.

Stingy funding slowed a program that provides highly accurate, computerized projections of where a storm's flood surge will strike.

They were valuable tools when Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989, and again in 1992 when Andrew savaged Homestead, Fla. Deaths were kept to a minimum as officials, using the data, moved people out of harm's way.

"It's the key to knowing who has to move, where and when, and whether the roadway system is safe," Kate Hale, emergency management director for Dade County, Fla., said of the evacuation plans. "It really helps you understand and correct misperceptions about the areas of vulnerability."

But only 13 of 34 coastal regions have up-to-date evacuation studies.

High-risk areas in the Carolinas and northeast Florida and big population centers, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, still await original or updated plans.

Los Angeles Times Articles