State is warned of storm threat

Attendees at conference in Laurel particularly note risk of flooding

April 19, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

After last year's devastating storms, including more than 1,300 deaths from Hurricane Katrina, the federal government's top hurricane forecaster came to Maryland yesterday to deliver one message: "If you think it will never be that bad again, I'm here to convince you otherwise."

Maryland's annual severe-storm awareness conference was the 21st, but unlike those of previous years, the event at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel was packed. It drew hundreds of local officials as well as President Bush's nominee to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the head of the National Weather Service and Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, who issued the stern warning.

"We sold out this one," said Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill, who leads the Maryland National Guard and oversees the state's emergency management agency. "For the obvious reason that if anyone takes a look at Katrina, Rita, Wilma and the media attention those storms received, any logical person would pay attention."

The federal government will not release its predictions for the 2006 hurricane season until next month. However, well-known hurricane forecaster William M. Gray of Colorado State University found a 64 percent chance that a major hurricane - Category 3 or larger - will hit the East Coast this year. The average for the previous century was 31 percent.

Mayfield reminded audience members that no matter the number of storms, it takes only one "to make a bad hurricane season," and that many citizens will ignore officials' advice and evacuation orders.

"I know you have hardy people up here on the Chesapeake who aren't going to leave no matter what," he said. "And in Katrina, people lost their lives because of it."

Mayfield said that Maryland is most prone to flooding - especially from storm surge, wind whipping up the sea level to abnormal highs. Mayfield compared it to blowing too hard on a cup of soup. But unlike a small cup of soup, a cubic yard of water weighs about 1,700 pounds and "comes in like a bulldozer," he said.

Mayfield showed emergency managers slide after slide of devastated Mississippi and Florida coastline. Entire houses that were there one day were gone another. Members of the audience shook their heads in dismay.

Before Hurricane Katrina, the nation had not seen such a deadly hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane in South Florida, which killed about 2,500 people when the storm surge breached Lake Okeechobee's dike.

The East Coast hasn't weathered anything like Katrina since "The Long Island Express" in 1938, which moved north at record-breaking speed. Such a storm, Mayfield said, would "clobber" Maryland.

In the closing session of the conference, Doug Hill, the chief meteorologist at WJLA, the ABC television affiliate in Washington, reminded local officials that because of the bay region's geography, tropical storms can cause severe flooding in the region, pointing to Isabel in 2003 and Agnes in 1972.

If a tropical storm can wreak such havoc, "the thought of a Category 1 or 2 is a nightmare scenario," Hill said. "Sooner or later, it's going to happen."

The government will use two new strategies this hurricane season, which begins June 1.

FEMA is in the process of assigning disaster coordinators to 13 states, including Maryland. Criticism of a slow federal response to Katrina, after the hurricane wiped out local resources, has changed FEMA's thinking.

"We're going to lean further forward than ever before," said R. David Paulison, Bush's nominee to lead the embattled agency. "Instead of waiting for [the storm] to come across, we're going to move into your state. ... Please don't feel we're taking over. Response is still a local issue."

Also, the National Hurricane Center will release new information on the intensity of storms. The Air Force's hurricane hunter aircraft will carry instruments that measure foam on waves, a sign of wind strength. That data will be converted into a chart showing the probability of hurricane-force winds hitting an area.

"We're going to focus more on intensity and try to get the focus off the skinny black line" that says where the storm is likely to hit, the hurricane center's Mayfield said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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