Originally created 05/20/05

Storm preparations improve



When Hurricane Floyd forced thousands of coastal residents to evacuate inland in 1999, Augusta emergency officials were surprised and overwhelmed by the number of people that crowded city shelters.

Officials vowed to be better prepared next time.

With yet another above-average period of hurricane activity predicted for the 2005 season, local emergency officials say they're ready for an onslaught of coastal evacuees and any hurricane-spawned tornadoes, flooding and heavy rain that may affect Augusta.

"The lines of communication are a lot better than they used to be," said Chief Howard Willis, the head of Richmond County's emergency management agency.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Atlantic Hurricane Outlook has predicted 12 to 15 tropical storms for the season with seven to nine developing into hurricanes.

Three to five of these hurricanes are predicted to become major hurricanes with winds of more than 111 miles per hour.

Hurricane season begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

The administration's prediction is only slightly more active than last year's, which foresaw 12 to 15 tropical storms. Fifteen named storms occurred during the season with nine becoming hurricanes and six becoming major hurricanes, including Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, storms that caused billions of dollars in damage in Florida.

Although Augusta officials were unprepared for the 2,800 evacuees from Savannah to Myrtle Beach who flooded city shelters six years ago, Chief Willis said emergency plans have been changed to better accommodate evacuees and keep city residents safe during hurricanes.

"We learned a lot, the city and the state did, on getting the information ahead of time and having the shelters prepared," Chief Willis said.

"What we do now, we start watching those storms well off the coast and as they progress in, we have certain stages of preparedness."

In conjunction with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, now run by the Georgia Office of Homeland Security, state plans were rewritten to clearly define the steps officials should take in the event of a hurricane, he said.

Working closely with the National Weather Service, officials now open shelters as soon as people begin migrating from the coast, Chief Willis said.

GEMA holds many conference calls daily at least 48 hours before the storm's potential impact, said Pam Tucker, Columbia County's emergency services director.

Nearly three decades ago, the technology used in tracking a fast-moving hurricane involved moving pushpins around on a paper map, said Ms. Tucker, who then served as Richmond County's EMA director.

Since then, technology has significantly changed the ways emergency officials prepare for hurricanes and other natural disasters, she said.

After Hurricane Floyd, state Department of Transportation officials installed electronic signs directing traffic along highways, Ms. Tucker said. Additionally, DOT and state officials initiate contra-flow, or highway lane reversal, to help alleviate traffic congestion as people evacuate, she said.

This season's outlook reflects an expected continuation of conditions associated with favoring above-normal Atlantic hurricane seasons since 1995, according to the NOAA.

Thanks to several variables, including continued warmer sea surface temperatures, the lack of the El Nio or La Nia winds to suppress hurricane activity, and the building boom and migration to the coast, the worse-than-average hurricane season is on the upswing and will remain that way for the next 30 years, said Frank Lepore, of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

"This is sort of one of these red arrows into the future," Mr. Lepore said. "You've got more people, more real estate and more storms, and you have a sizeable percentage of that population that has very little experience with hurricanes."

A majority of coastal residents seemingly aren't concerned about hurricanes, he said.

Results from a recent survey of 1,100 people in 12 coastal states conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research said 47 percent of responders did not have a family hurricane emergency plan. More than half of this percentage was Florida residents, Mr. Lepore said.

"Somewhere in the spectrum, apparently hurricane planning gets lost in the noise," he said.

But it's the one big storm of the season that people need to worry about, even people as far inland as Augusta, he said.

Over the past 30 years, more people have died from inland flooding than from coastal storm surge or wind effects, Mr. Lepore said.

"There is a real need to pay attention as far inland as Augusta," he said.

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.

Hurricane outlook

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Outlook calls for 12 to 15 tropical storms. Of those, seven to nine are predicted to become hurricanes with three to five of them becoming major hurricanes. This prediction reflects a very likely continuation of above-normal activity that began in 1995.

Source: The NOAA

Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale

The scale categorizes storms by measuring their intensity. Winds Effects

Category 1 74-95 mphNo real damage to building structures

Category 2 96-110 mphSome roofing material, door and window damage of buildings; considerable damage to mobile homes

Category 3 111-130 mphSome structural damage to small residences and utility buildings; large trees blown down, mobile homes destroyed and storm surge generally 9-12 feet above normal

Category 4 131-155 mphComplete roof structure failures on some residences; possible flooding may require massive evacuation of residential areas as far inland as 6 miles

Category 5 156+ mph Storm surge greater than 18 feet above normal; massive evacuation of residential areas on low ground with 5-10 miles of shoreline may be required

Source: The National Hurricane Center