|"If we have another big storm, the potential impacts may still be horrendous, but they wouldn't be as shocking."|
Florida Department of Community Affairs
Andrew, Hugo, Floyd—these names immediately conjure up images of some of the worst hurricane disasters in history. The coastal resource managers who survived these killer storms all have worked to prepare better for the next one, and advise managers in states that have experienced years without a hurricane strike not to be "lulled to sleep."
"Our state went through a period where there wasn't a tremendous amount of hurricane activity," says Brian Long, public information officer with the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management. "Now, it seems to be a yearly pattern.... You can go through years of quiet and calm, and the weather patterns change, and you can find yourself a favorite destination of Atlantic hurricanes."
Many experts say we are in a cycle of stronger storms, which means the possibility of more landfalls and billions of dollars in storm damage. Hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University predict the increased storm activity seen over the past five years—the five most intense consecutive storm seasons on record—will continue perhaps for the next 20 years.
Managers in Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina say the major storms that hit their states were wakeup calls to the need for continually improving hurricane planning and preparation. Each has responded in a variety of ways, from the development of community hazard mitigation strategies, to the utilization of new technology to ensure better post-disaster response, to the creation of a regulation checklist for local authorities.
"Andrew was a turning point for the way that we not only deal with the aftermath, but also prepare for hurricanes," says Dennis Smith, planning manager for the Florida Department of Community Affairs (FDCA). "It's safe to say that the emergency management system we had in place failed.... If you can't deal with the actual hurricane event, you don't have much hope of minimizing losses afterwards."
And the losses after Andrew were staggering. The August 1992 storm caused an estimated $25 billion in property damage—a new high in U.S. disaster history—and was directly responsible for 26 deaths.
"A big disaster has the unique ability to really show where your program deficiencies are," Smith notes, "but it also provides you with the opportunity to address those problems." One of the changes since Andrew has been the creation of a program encouraging all communities in the state to develop a pre-disaster hazard mitigation plan.
In 1996, the FDCA's divisions of Emergency Management, Housing and Community Development, Bureau of Community Development, and the Florida Coastal Management Program pooled their time and resources to "devise a system for developing plans in all 67 counties, and more importantly paying for it," Smith says. To ensure these plans wouldn't sit on a shelf, the group developed a six-step process to guide plan development. By December 1999, all 67 counties had submitted plans for the state's review.
"I think what our state and coastal program has done since Andrew is recognize the importance of planning and legitimize the mitigation strategy process," Smith says. "If we have another big storm, the potential impacts may still be horrendous, but they wouldn't be as shocking. Our actual losses will be less because of the pre-disaster mitigation actions that have been taken."
In the decade since Hurricane Hugo struck the South Carolina coast causing more than $7 billion in damage and killing 24, managers in that state have been utilizing new technology to ensure they are prepared in the event of another storm.
"Primarily, post-disaster is about logistics," says Debra Hernandez, director of program and policy development for South Carolina Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (SCOCRM). "It's about telling people where and how they can build back, and making sure you can get the paperwork done as fast and effectively as possible."
What complicated matters for managers after Hugo, she says, was the state's jurisdictional lines had been legislatively changed in 1988, and the agency was in the process of reviewing the data and getting orthophotographic maps produced when the storm hit in September 1989.
"The damage assessment was really a mess," says Joe Fersner, director of SCOCRM's Engineering and State Certification Section. "They were scrambling to get the orthophotos so that we could actually know what houses and what structures were in the setback zone in front of the (new) baseline." Even with the maps, he says, "we didn't have any way of knowing street addresses because there were blocks where there were no longer any houses at all.
"What we've done now is use GPS (Global Positioning System) units so that we can go out and get a location of a damaged structure, and we can input the information directly into the GPS unit," Fersner explains. "In the field, we can identify whether we think it's damaged beyond repair, definitely not damaged beyond repair, or if it needs to be reassessed by an engineer. We can directly feed that into the GPS and then come in and download that information" into a new digital inventory of every structure and seawall along the coast. The inventory also includes tax assessment data and can be linked to the orthophotographic maps.
While managers can never plan for everything that can happen during a hurricane, Fersner says, "We're as ready as we can get."
Brian Long says managers in North Carolina, which has suffered the onslaught of five hurricanes in the past five years, "learn a little bit from each storm." Hurricane Floyd struck in September 1999 and became the worst disaster in the state's history. Coming just two weeks after Hurricane Dennis saturated the coastal soil, Floyd caused an estimated $6 billion primarily in flood damage and claimed 56 lives, making it the deadliest hurricane in the U.S. since Agnes in 1972.
"The main thing we picked up this time," Long says, "is the importance of communication with coastal communities, and making sure we are getting information out to them about rebuilding anything requiring permits, and what you can and can't do." After a post-Floyd meeting with local officials, managers developed the idea for a hurricane recovery checklist that would be a quick reference for common rebuilding issues and their regulatory requirements. He notes that it includes not only coastal management requirements, but also those of other state and federal regulatory offices, as well as contact names and phone numbers.
"I know we're better prepared," Long says. The meetings last year with local officials "went a long way toward laying the groundwork for better relations following future storms."
He adds, "There's a lot more of an awareness of what can happen on our coast in the season from June to November. That to me is the first step toward minimizing the impact of hurricanes as people are more aware of what can happen and the precautions that can be taken."
For more information on Florida's Local Mitigation Strategy, contact Dennis Smith at (850) 922-5434 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on South Carolina's use of technology, contact Debra Hernandez at (843) 747-4323, ext. 130, or email@example.com, or Joe Fersner at (843) 747-4323, ext. 127, or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on North Carolina's Hurricane Recovery Checklist, contact Brian Long at (919) 733-2293, ext. 229, or email@example.com.