States warn residents to ready for hurricanes

May 31, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI --Convinced that harsh tactics are needed, officials in hurricane-prone states are trumpeting dire warnings about the storm season that starts tomorrow, preaching self-reliance and prodding the public to prepare early and well.

Cities are circulating storm-preparation checklists, counties are holding hurricane expositions at shopping malls and states are dangling free home inspections and tax-free storm supplies in hopes of conquering complacency. But the main strategy, it seems, is to scare people who remain blase even after last year's record-breaking storm season.

To persuade residents to heed evacuation orders, the Florida Division of Emergency Management is broadcasting public service announcements with recordings of 911 calls placed during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

"We're going to use a sledgehammer," Craig Fugate, Florida's emergency management director, said of the tactics.

This save-yourselves approach comes after government agencies were overwhelmed by pleas for help after last year's storms and assailed for not responding swiftly or thoroughly enough to the public need. Now, officials have said repeatedly, only the elderly, poor and disabled should count on the government to help them escape a hurricane or endure its immediate aftermath.

Mississippi, where 238 people died in Hurricane Katrina, unrolled the "Stay Alert. Stay Alive" hurricane awareness campaign in April. State officials told residents what to pack in a "go-kit" for evacuating (flashlight, radio, nonelectric can opener) and urged them to stockpile at least three days' worth of water and food.

Horry County, S.C., home to Myrtle Beach, held a hurricane exposition and is giving similar presentations at Kiwanis clubs and homeowners associations.

"Our main theme is, `Take interest as an individual and make preparations,'" said Randall Webster, director of Horry County Emergency Management.

But will it work? A poll this month by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Inc. found that of 1,100 adults in Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, 83 percent had taken no steps to fortify their homes this year, 68 percent had no hurricane survival kit and 60 percent had no family disaster plan.

"I can't rightfully say I see any increased sense of people getting ready," said Larry Gispert, emergency management director in Hillsborough County, Fla. "It's like a psychological issue: `If I don't think about bad things, bad things won't happen.'"

Florida's second annual tax holiday on storm supplies has drawn a less than overwhelming response.

Meanwhile, government agencies are stockpiling water and food, improving communications technology and outfitting trucks with global positioning systems.

Hattiesburg, Miss., is buying $4 million worth of generators. Broward County, Fla., bought a $500,000 command post vehicle.

Communities are coaxing people to prepare little by little, by saving milk jugs as emergency water containers and buying an extra can of food every grocery trip.

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