Originally created 06/04/06

Officials get Georgia set for the worst



ATLANTA - Georgia was lucky to avoid a direct hit from a hurricane in the past 125 years because of its coastal geography, but that doesn't stop state emergency officials from preparing for one. That holds even truer as the state heads into this year's season, which started Thursday and runs until the end of November.

"This is probably the most anticipated hurricane season that I've ever seen after what we saw last year," said Buzz Weiss, a spokesman for the Georgia Office of Homeland Security and state Emergency Management Agency.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting eight to 10 hurricanes, with four to six that could become major ones. By comparison, an average season results in six hurricanes and two that become Category 3 or higher. Mr. Weiss pointed to last year's devastation from Hurricane Katrina and this year's prediction of above- average hurricane activity as concerns.

"We learned a lot of lessons from Katrina and other storms," he said. "It is critical for local agencies and state agencies to have (emergency) plans in place to implement."

David Stooksbury, the state's climatologist and a University of Georgia professor, said the intense storm season could start early this year based on already warm sea temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

He said surface temperatures in the Caribbean also have hit the 82 degrees needed for tropical storms to form.

Though Katrina directed its fury at Louisiana and Mississippi, Georgia did not escape the storm damage.

The hurricane spawned 18 tornados in northwest Georgia, the largest number to hit the state in a single day.

Responding to similar severe weather, evacuation routes and even the possibility Georgia could suffer a direct hit has had emergency officials training before the hurricane season's start.

State emergency officials have conducted major tests in recent weeks.

Among them were a simulation of converting Interstate 16 into an evacuation route from Savannah to Dublin, and training exercises with 100 other state and federal emergency officials from eight Southeastern states.

Telecommunications companies also are beefing up their emergency operations for this hurricane season.

For example, Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless pumped more than $60 million into hurricane preparedness for the Southeast, including buying extra power generators with the hopes of keeping cell service running during a severe storm.

Similarly, Verizon Wireless has generators installed at 70 percent of the company's cell locations in Georgia and a fleet of self-powered transmitters, dubbed Cells on Wheels, that drive out to areas needing extra network capacity during severe storms.

Communicating in general was an issue during Katrina, with both evacuees and emergency workers having difficulties calling out in many areas.

Telephone provider BellSouth is trying to stave off the issue of losing power on its network by increasing its supplies of generators and adding some that run off natural gas and do not need to be refueled.

The provider also has moved more network switches and generators to top floors of buildings, in light of the massive flooding problems Katrina caused last year.

As much behind-the-scenes planning as officials are undertaking, individual preparation is just as vital during hurricane-related incidents, Mr. Weiss said.

"No matter what we do, what's critical is that the general public needs to have a plan in place. People need to know what they'd do if severe weather struck their area," he said.

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 681-1701 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.

Hurricane Preparations

Here are some things officials say Georgia residents should consider before a hurricane or severe weather hits:


- Families with pets should make plans for what they would do with their animals in the event of an evacuation.

- A family disaster kit should be prepared and include bottled water, nonperishable food, extra clothing, bedding, a flashlight, a radio, extra batteries, and medicine and personal hygiene items.

- A battery-powered, tone-activated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio to monitor weather forecasts and warnings is essential.

- Homeowners should check insurance coverage now. Regular policies do not cover flood damage. Special policies are available, but they do not take effect until 30 days after they are purchased.

Source: Georgia Emergency Management Agency