Ocean City makes top 4

Hurricane experts rate nation's worst areas for evacuation in disaster

April 07, 2002|By Kevin Spear | Kevin Spear,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - Half of the population of Tampa Bay is trapped in gridlock as a killer hurricane bears down. New Orleans fills with floodwater. Chaos threatens New York. Thousands of people are dangerously clueless in Ocean City, Md., where only two main roads lead on and off the beach.

The nightmare scenarios led organizers of the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando last week to name those areas as the "Four Worst Hurricane Evacuation Disasters in the U.S. Waiting to Happen."

The titles are based on professional opinion, estimated evacuation times and other particularly worrisome details.

Take, for example, the peninsula dropping south between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, where beachgoers clog two main roads to vacation along the popular coast, which covers parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

The summer population jumps to more than 500,000 - and virtually no one is watching the news.

One way to get hurricane warnings out is to post them on banners pulled by airplanes along the seashore.

"People come to the beach for one reason: to unplug," said Clay Stamp, a director for Ocean City Emergency Management. "They don't watch television."

Threat in New York

The threat of a major hurricane to New York breaks down into numbers. The city has 8 million residents; several million pets, carriage horses and zoo animals; 30,000 hospital patients; and more than 200 languages or dialects.

One other issue looms: "Our building codes are not as strong as they are in different areas," said Anne Grunwald, coordinator at the New York City Office of Emergency Management.

Tampa Bay, which hasn't been hit by a major hurricane since 1921. The metro area could face a mountainous surge of water piling up from the shallow bay and the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

Escaping the surge could prove daunting for a large portion of 2.5 million residents who would be ordered to evacuate. And good luck aiming for Disney World, which is where experts think residents would try to flee.

"Only about a third of the people who think they are going to Orlando will make it," said Betti Johnson, a Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council coordinator. "We have the dubious distinction of having some of the highest evacuation times in the country."

Predictions improve

Not to panic. In just the past decade, the job of predicting hurricanes has improved markedly.

A decade ago, the three-day prediction of a hurricane's position was accurate to within 300 miles, said Lixion A. Avila, meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Today, the margin of error is down to 200 miles, thanks to satellites, airplane tracking, sea buoys, land-based radar and smarter computers that crunch out predictions.

The National Weather Service is considering whether to push its extended hurricane forecast to five days.

More-accurate hurricane forecasting spells better results for emergency responders in places such as Key West, stuck 160 miles south of Miami at the tail end of a series of little islands, or Cape Canaveral, protruding from the Florida coast into the path of danger.

"No matter how good the National Weather Service is, there's no way we will get enough time to evacuate New Orleans," said Sean Fontenot, a manager with the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness.

No matter what preparations the experts make, there's still one single factor that is most important in determining the fate of those communities, and the experts are hoping it holds.

"We're just incredibly lucky," said Johnson of Tampa Bay.

Kevin Spear is a reporter for The Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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