Originally created 06/02/01

Official urges hurricane plan

SAVANNAH - As hurricane season approached, Phillip Webber was on the stump every day, preaching the gospel of evacuation, re-entry and recovery at Rotary Clubs, homeowner association dinners, and industrial safety meetings.

The director of the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency carries some handouts; sometimes he even takes a PowerPoint presentation. But mostly he just talks.

"I talk to them about their responsibility to work, their homes and their families," said Mr. Webber, the director of the main county agency that manages public safety during emergencies such as hurricanes. "Sometimes I don't even know what I'm going to say until I get there. But people keep asking us back."

They keep asking him back because on this, the first day of hurricane season, most people's thoughts turn at least briefly to this question: What if one hits?

Mr. Webber's message is clear. Preparation and planning, he says, are the balm for hurricane worries. And that goes for the individual citizen as much as regional governments. It's a message echoed by state and federal emergency officials and weather experts from Miami to Fort Collins, Co.

Mr. Webber said the two questions he is asked most often during his presentations are: How many people really will leave if an evacuation is called and how far away is far enough? Mr. Webber said instead of answering outright, he likes to turn the tables and ask a question of his own: Have you made changes or improvements to your own hurricane plan?

"The vast majority raise their hand" to say yes, he said.

Mr. Webber said that tells him the community has turned a corner. The focus is no longer just on evacuation, but on re-entry and recovery. Evacuation saves lives on the front end; planning for re-entry and recovery gets the community back on its feet if it is hit by a hurricane.

"We are getting healthier by the day in all our efforts in respect to re-entry and recovery," Mr. Webber said. "Evacuation will be like a walk in the park in comparison to the effort needed to save jobs, homes and livelihoods."

THIS YEAR, FORECASTERS predict a slightly above-average hurricane season.

The Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration puts it at eight to 11 tropical storms, five to seven hurricanes and two to three major hurricanes.

William Gray, the noted forecaster at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Co., pins it down to 10 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes. The first storm of the Pacific basin hurricane season, Adolph, already is blowing itself out south of Mexico.

David Weymiller, the spokesman for Mr. Gray, said the professor might bump up the number of predicted major hurricanes from two to three when he issues a revised prediction Thursday.

But none of the predictions forecast landfall locations, a factor Mr. Webber says people need to remember as they prepare their homes and family for the season.

And a hurricane does not even have to hit coastal Georgia to cause big trouble.

A "backdoor" storm, one that moves across the Florida panhandle and sweeps in from the southwest, can bring flooding and spawn tornadoes over a wide area.

"These represent a real threat to our area," said Rich Thacker, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Charleston.

Mr. Thacker's special assignment for this hurricane season is to analyze each incoming tropical storm or hurricane for its tornado-producing potential and warn inland counties in a timely manner.

No matter what kind of weather the next six months bring, Mr. Webber said a well-prepared community evacuates faster and more thoroughly and recovers faster. After 1999's Hurricane Floyd, Chatham County and the coastal southeast have proved they can evacuate even if the process is a messy one.

State emergency officials from North Carolina to Florida learned some hard lessons from Floyd and have done much to improve the evacuation process, said Gary McConnell, the director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and a member of a multistate post-Floyd evaluation team.

He points to plans to turn Interstate 16 to all westbound lanes as soon as a mandatory evacuation is called as proof of the improvements. And he adds that the state spent millions of dollars to build cross-over lanes across the interstate's median to make the process easier. It's an example, he said, of building the infrastructure to take the plan from paper to reality.

On the stump, Mr. Webber said he thinks the changes go deeper than paper and concrete.

"THE REAL BENEFIT comes from what the average citizen does," he said." The average guy saying this time, I'll have a map; I'll have a destination in mine; I'll start sooner. They've done their homework now."

A community prepared to deal with a hurricane can recover faster, Mr. Webber said. Part of it is having all the emergency responders - the fire departments, the police, public works, even building inspectors - know what they are going to do afterward so they can hit the ground running. A first-time countywide hurricane conference held in May laid that groundwork.

Another part of it is having an informed, educated population that knows when to get out of the way.

To put it grimly, the less time emergency responders can spend looking for bodies, the sooner people will be allowed to return to their homes and business.

Not counting damages from a storm, experts from the Georgia Insurance Information Service, a trade group for insurance companies selling insurance in Georgia, say a community such as Savannah that is hit by a Category 2 hurricane can expect to lose $12 million to $15 million a day every day it's shut down. That's money that is lost from the local economy forever. The longer businesses are shut down, the harder it is for them to re-open and prosper. The longer people are out of work because their place of employment is closed, the more likely they are to move away.

"Say we can cut our re-entry and recovery time by two or three days - you do the math," Mr. Webber said.

That's why he spends the weeks before hurricane season talking to anyone who will listen about having a plan for evacuation and for re-entry and recovery.

As far as those two most-asked questions - how far is enough and how many people really will leave - Mr. Webber says far away enough depends on your comfort level once you are away from the danger zone. His own family - wife, Sharon, and two children - spend evacuations with family in Atlanta.

And they leave when a voluntary evacuation is called.

Mr. Webber said it pure braggadocio when people say they will never evacuate again because of slow traffic and other inconveniences.

When faced with the same storm and the same choices, Mr. Webber said, people will choose safety, get in their cars and go.

Only time will tell.

JUNE 1 IS THE first day of the Atlantic basin hurricane season because, by this time, the waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have warmed to about 80 degrees - the minimum water temperature required to sustain the energy of a hurricane.

Tropical cyclones - the other name for hurricanes - can develop before June 1 and after November 30, the arbitrary date when hurricane season officially ends.

According to John Cole, a hurricane expert at the National Weather Service office in Charleston, S.C., tropical cyclones have been known to form in almost every month of the year except March and April. They're just not called hurricanes except for six months of the year.

August, September and October are the prime months for hurricane activity because of the high water temperatures in subtropical and tropical waters. Those are the months when the big storms come rolling east from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa.


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