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'We Were Pretty Smug': Katrina a Wake-up Call

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You would think that the Carolinas -- with a long history of menacing hurricanes -- wouldn't need a reminder that storms can be deadly and devastating.

You would be wrong.

Emergency officials all along the coast say they were shocked by the damage and death toll from Hurricane Katrina last year, and it forced them to reassess their plans.

"We were pretty smug about our capabilities here, until Katrina hit," said Tom Leath, city manager in Myrtle Beach, which hasn't had a direct hit from a hurricane since Hazel in 1954.

"We're really good at preparing for the storm, and jumping out as the last winds begin to subside and cleaning up quickly," he said. "No one had really given a whole lot of thought to what happens when the whole lay of the land is blown away."

At the same time, polls by the American Red Cross and the National Hurricane Survival Initiative show that about two-thirds of the residents of both states -- even those in coastal areas -- have done little or nothing to prepare their families or homes for hurricane season. And more than 1 in 10 say they wouldn't evacuate even if ordered to.

S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford said that many coastal communities have gotten into the mind-set that "hurricanes are mainly about losing stuff. Katrina underscored that you can lose lives."

Last year saw a record 28 named storms, including 15 hurricanes. As Atlantic hurricane season opens today, government forecasters predict up to 16 named storms this year, including as many as 10 that reach hurricane strength. That's well above average.

Even more troubling: A top forecasting team says there's an 82 percent chance that at least one major hurricane, of Category 3 or above, will make landfall along the U.S. coastline. Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it came ashore.

There's a debate raging over whether global warming is partly to blame. But weather watchers agree that the Atlantic Ocean is in the midst of a more active cycle, which started a decade ago.

The Carolinas were among the first to feel the impact, with Hurricanes Fran and Bertha striking near Wilmington in 1996, followed by Bonnie two years later. Floyd flooded eastern North and South Carolina in 1999, while Isabel sliced through the Outer Banks in 2003.

North Carolina -- thanks to its coastline jutting into the Atlantic -- has been hit by 15 tropical storms or hurricanes since 1996.

And it's not just the coastal counties that have to worry. In 2004, a series of tropical storm remnants moving up from the Gulf states caused flooding and landslides in the mountains of Western North Carolina, costing 14 lives.

Charlotte suffered hurricane-force winds in 1989 with Hugo, which buzz-sawed north from Charleston. The storm downed trees and cut power to thousands of residents for well over a week. The city suffered more devastation than some parts of the S.C. coast.

But nothing that has struck the Carolinas over the past decade matches the scale of Hurricanes Katrina or Rita, which assaulted the Gulf Coast last year. Katrina killed more than 1,200 people.

"There are a lot of people in North Carolina who have not experienced a major storm," said N.C. Emergency Management Director Doug Hoell. "Sooner or later, we're going to come face to face with a Category 4 or 5."

That will be the true test of how well the Carolinas have learned from seasons past.


Emergency officials and government forecasters in the Carolinas told the Observer that they have drawn on their own experiences, as well as the lessons of Hurricane Katrina, to improve their planning and prepare their communities if the big one comes. 

N.C. Gov. Mike Easley

"Any state would be challenged by a Katrina-type event. North Carolina does not have the population density that New Orleans or Houston has. I am confident in North Carolina's emergency response capabilities, but there would certainly be challenges in that level of storm."

"Remember that Floyd (which hit in 1999) was a Category 3 storm and flooded more than 15,000 homes. While it was certainly not overnight, North Carolina has recovered very well."

More than a dozen hurricanes and tropical storms have affected the state since Easley took office in 2001.

"Our state's emergency response system is very experienced, but people who live in hurricane-prone areas also have to prepare so they are ready to take some responsibility for their own safety during and immediately after a storm."

On the lessons of Katrina:

"Hindsight is always 20-20, and I am not going to second guess decisions made by other governors responding to Katrina. ... The key to making the local, state and federal partnership in emergency response work is a good command and control system so that each level of government is clear on its responsibility and is coordinated. We know and practice that here in North Carolina." --Scott Dodd

S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford

"We'd been lured into believing that hurricanes were mainly about losing stuff, so I think Katrina was a big wake-up call."

South Carolina -- which hasn't been hit directly by a hurricane since Hugo in 1989 -- took a close look at the reports of what went wrong during Katrina and made changes. They include setting up a volunteer coordinator to handle the influx of help after a storm, making sure aid gets in quickly and efficiently, and spending $6 million to upgrade equipment such as communications gear and generator hookups for emergency shelters.

Sanford made evacuation plans a big push when he took office after Hurricane Floyd caused a massive traffic jam from the coast in 1999. But he said Katrina also highlighted the needs of the poor, sick and elderly.

After last year, S.C. officials reviewed evacuation plans for nursing homes, hospitals and similar facilities and found that many were inadequate. Changes were required before the season began.

"In many cases, there were single transportation vendors with multiple contracts to multiple old folks homes, so if a storm hit, there was no way they could actually deliver. We said, 'That ain't gonna work.'." --Scott Dodd

N.C. Emergency Management Director Doug Hoell

"We have for years now looked at a hurricane as our largest-scale potential disaster, and we have planned for it and planned for it and planned for it. That's not to say that if one hit this year, there won't be problems. There will be."

His main concerns: Communications at all levels of government, and the lack of personal planning.

"Our communications -- local to state, state to federal -- those are the things that stand paramount. If we fragment, we aren't going to do well. From the beginning of any event, we've got to be working together."

North Carolina is building more satellite phone capabilities, because land lines and cell towers often are wiped out in storms.

As for polls that show many residents aren't prepared and won't evacuate:

"I'm disappointed, quite frankly. There are always going to be people who choose to stay, and afterward, we see them crawling out of the rubble, saying: 'I'll never do that again.' Why can't we learn from that?" --Scott Dodd

Myrtle Beach City Manager Tom Leath

In nearly 20 years on the job, Leath has seen Myrtle Beach hit by a major storm just once, in 1989 when the city was sideswiped by Hurricane Hugo. Katrina forced his community to pull its emergency plan off the shelf and revise it to deal with a long-term catastrophe.

"We never really had that next step: What happens if everything gets blown away and there's no city hall and no water and sewer and nothing to work with? Since Hazel (in 1954), we had never really been blown apart like that. We're spending an awful lot of time now planning for the big one."

That includes things like getting keys to all the Wal-Mart and Home Depot-type stores in the area, and signing contracts so that officials can go in and take what they need after a storm. It also means planning for bringing in emergency supplies quickly from out of town and knowing how to distribute them - without relying on outside help.

"Katrina reinforced that you're on your own for a couple of days. You can't count on the federal government or the state government to come in and fix everything. It's going to take time." --Scott Dodd

New Hanover County Emergency Management Director Warren Lee

"We in the emergency response community tend to think we're invincible, but we're not. Our buildings and headquarters can be wiped out as easy as anything. ...I think we tend to plan for what we know is likely to happen, when we need to be planning for the worst that can happen."

Over the past year, New Hanover has opened a new emergency operations center -- built to withstand a Category 5 storm -- and worked to find alternate sites for all critical services in case government buildings are destroyed.

The county also has pushed hospitals and nursing homes to have better emergency plans - something that was often taken on faith in the past. And officials in several coastal counties have made deals with inland communities to shelter their residents in a full-scale retreat from the coast.

New Hanover includes Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, which have been hit by several hurricanes over the past decade.

"One of our biggest concerns here is that we've got a lot of folks who've been through a lot of Category 1s or 2s and think they know what to expect. One day, a big storm is going to go through and our beach is going to look like something out of Louisiana last year. We're going to have a large loss of life when that happens." --Scott Dodd

Wilmington Meteorologist Steve Pfaff

The National Hurricane Center has equipped about 25 National Weather Service offices in coastal areas -- including several in the Carolinas -- with direct links to weather satellites.

Pfaff says the updated satellite photos will help his office, which provides forecasts for an area stretching from just north of Wilmington to south of Myrtle Beach.

"That will enable us to watch the hurricanes much more closely as they approach land. We've seen that before along the Carolinas coast, and we saw how important that was last year, as the storms approached land.

"It's one thing to see a satellite picture transmitted to us from somewhere else, but by getting a direct feed, we get the information more quickly. And when a hurricane is getting near the coast, every minute can make a difference."

In addition, the National Hurricane Center is paying for backup power-generating equipment to operate weather reporting stations in hurricane-prone areas, including the Carolinas. After Katrina and Rita last year, meteorologists found themselves lacking real-time information about temperatures, wind and other conditions in areas that lost power. --Steve Lyttle

Charlotte-Area Meteorologist Pat Moore

For Moore and fellow forecasters at the National Weather Service office in Greer, S.C. -- the office that covers the Charlotte area -- the 2004 hurricane season provided guidance on how to deal with the leftovers of hurricanes and tropical storms as they move inland.

"The remnants of Hurricanes Frances and Ivan spawned a large number of tornadoes in the area. The type of tornadoes caused by dying tropical weather systems often form very quickly and are difficult to detect."

The Greer office also developed new methods of forecasting mudslides and flash flooding, based on what they learned from damage done in the N.C. mountains in the fall of 2004. Meteorologists visited the site of the worst flooding and think they will be better-equipped to issue warnings more quickly in the future. --Steve Lyttle

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Emergency Management Director Wayne Broome

"We're fine-tuning some stuff, but we're not making any big revisions. I think we're in pretty good shape."

Among the changes: Plans for managing resources, such as water, prepared meals and emergency supplies, and evacuating hospitals.

Last year, officials asked UNC Charlotte experts to study the area's transit resources and evacuation plans to work out a better system for assisting the poor, sick and elderly.

"We don't have enough resources for everyone who would need it," Broome said. So officials have worked out plans to call on the state or other communities for aid if an evacuation is needed.

Broome believes early decision-making is the key.

"The biggest mistake is not making a decision." --Scott Dodd