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Hurricane Lessons Seem Largely Ignored

Disaster-response planners worry that warnings about the storm season, which begins next week, have gone mostly unheeded.

May 21, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In these last days before the June 1 start of hurricane season, forecasters and disaster-response planners are coming to the dispiriting conclusion that few lessons were learned last year from Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Waterfront construction continues to boom along the Gulf of Mexico and Florida's Atlantic coastline, with tens of thousands of new homes in harm's way alongside the rebuilding of those demolished.

More than 100,000 people displaced by last year's storms are still living in government trailers, despite emergency planners' warnings that the temporary shelters are at risk of blowing apart, like most mobile homes in the region, if even a strong tropical storm passes.

Most city, state and federal emergency management authorities still can't communicate by phone or radio in a crisis because a $2-billion special outlay for "interoperability" is mired in legislative wrangling or being spent without federal coordination.

And Lake Okeechobee, with an eroding retention dike said to be near collapse, has evoked chilling comparisons to the New Orleans levees that burst under the deluge from Katrina. The elevated lake in western Palm Beach County looms over 40,000 residents, the ecological security of the Everglades and the purity of all of South Florida's drinking water.

These causes for worry persist through no lack of preseason planning. Three thousand emergency response officials flocked to Gov. Jeb Bush's five-day hurricane conference in Fort Lauderdale last week, and meteorologists from the National Weather Service have been hopscotching across the region chanting the mantra: Be prepared.

To the dismay of those who dedicate their lives to advising coastal communities on what to expect, the warnings often fall on deaf ears.

"Experience is not always a good teacher," Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, said during a break in his barnstorming through Hurricane Alley, the vast storm-prone stretch that runs from the Windward Islands through the Caribbean to the shores of North and Central America.

Local, state and federal officials have been showering Florida and Gulf households with survival-planning checklists and stepping up public relations work to persuade those at risk to stock up, shore up and ship out ahead of a storm's landfall.

"We are encouraging every individual, every family, every business to have a hurricane plan in place before the start of the season," Mayfield said. "There's too much stress with a hurricane bearing down on you to leave the planning to the last minute."

But he's not encouraged by recent experience.

Just two months after Floridians watched the suffering inflicted on New Orleans by Katrina, thousands ignored weeklong warnings that Hurricane Wilma was headed their way, failing to buy even the most basic emergency provisions. However, they lined up within 24 hours of the Oct. 24 storm demanding bottled water and ice from local officials, Mayfield recalled.

In perhaps the most disturbing element of deja vu for disaster planners, a team of experts warned in late April that the dike around Okeechobee poses a 1-in-6 chance of failure this year. Gov. Bush appealed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undertake urgent repairs and ordered the State Emergency Response Team to prepare to evacuate those living in the elevated lake's shadow.

The corps has long known of the dike's underground leakage and perforation -- the expert report from the South Florida Water Management District described the erosion as bearing "a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese." Repairs are underway, and emergency mitigation plans have been developed, said Nancy Regalado, spokeswoman for the Jacksonville office. She described the water management report by three respected specialists as "really convoluted," because it evaluated the 70-year-old ring of levees against the requirements of a dam.

The difference between a dike and a dam is significant in securing funds for repair. Congressional action is needed for dike upgrades, but dam safety projects are eligible for emergency funding because they protect human lives. Dikes and levees, by contrast, are classified as protecting property.

"The standards for a dam are much, much higher than the standards to which it was built," Regalado said of the 140-mile-long Herbert Hoover Dike, built piecemeal around Okeechobee after a 1928 hurricane swept lake water over surrounding towns, killing almost 3,000 people.

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