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Officials prepare for hurricane season at conference in Florida

Federal and state officials talk about the good and bad of storm forecasting, and the FEMA chief says emergency managers need to take advantage of the public's willingness to act on their own.

May 27, 2010|By Robin Nolin, Sun Sentinel

Reporting from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — —

Days before the start of what's predicted to be a busy hurricane season, federal and state officials meeting in Florida reviewed what's working and what isn't when it comes to storm forecasting, and urged emergency managers to rethink how they view the public in forming disaster plans.

"We literally look at the public as a liability," Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday at the 24th annual Governor's Hurricane Conference at the Broward County Convention Center here. "When we talk about the public, we say they need to have a plan."

But Fugate said the public is not a static entity in the aftermath of a hurricane or other natural disaster. Residents often take action on their own.

"Generally, as we get to a scene, people weren't waiting for us to get there. They were doing things already," he said.

Emergency managers need to take advantage of the public's spirit to act spontaneously. "They should be looking at the public as part of this team," Fugate said.

The FEMA chief said assisting people during a disaster isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition. Simply sending truckloads of ready-to-eat meals to a stricken community won't help children too young to consume adult food. Or shipping standard military or camping cots to a disaster area won't help seniors, the disabled or the overweight who may be unable to use them.

"Why are we only planning for healthy adults, who may be more self-sufficient?" he said.

Fugate said emergency managers should give the public a greater role in disaster planning. "We're trying to change our approach at FEMA to focus on our customers," he said.

Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, reminded attendees of what's good and bad in predicting a storm's characteristics.

What's good: Improvements in the accuracy of forecasting a storm's path. Because of more sophisticated computer models and more frequent aerial reconnaissance, track forecasting errors have been cut in half over the last 15 years, Read said.

Last year's 48-hour path predictions, he said, equaled the 24-hour predictions of 10 years earlier. And that trend should keep up. "We're going to continue improving the track forecast," he said.

But what's bad is also scary: Little progress has been made in anticipating how strong a storm can get. "Current models have little or no skill" at predicting a hurricane's intensity, he said. A storm suddenly growing stronger approaching landfall can greatly hamper efforts to determine if evacuation is warranted.

"With a storm rapidly intensifying near land, you're not going to have that much lead time," he said.

Gov. Charlie Crist is scheduled to address the conference Thursday with grim news of his own: A disturbing number of Floridians at risk from hurricanes are unprepared and unconcerned. According to a Mason-Dixon poll by the National Hurricane Survival Initiative, 17% of coastal residents said they would not evacuate even if ordered.

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