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Florida officials worry about 'hurricane fatigue'
[June 04, 2006]

Florida officials worry about 'hurricane fatigue'

(South Florida Sun-Sentinel (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ Fear is a good thing _ when it comes to hurricanes.

"People need to be more afraid than they have been in the past," says Jay Baker, a behavioral geography professor at Florida State University, noting that more frequent, intense storms could become an annual event over the next two decades.

Yet with hurricane season here, emergency managers worry residents will instead become overconfident after surviving Hurricane Wilma last October or resigned after dealing with two years of tropical turmoil.

"A few years ago, we were talking about hurricane amnesia. Now we're talking about hurricane fatigue," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center.

For example, he said, after being asked to evacuate seven times in two years, less than 10 percent of Keys residents evacuated for Wilma. A recent Mason-Dixon poll showed 35 percent of those in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties might ignore orders to leave if a hurricane threatens.

That could spell trouble if an intense storm strikes, said Charles Tear, Palm Beach County's director of emergency management.

"We reacted very well to a Category 2 storm," he said, referring to Wilma. "But a more severe storm is going to be much, much worse."

Although Wilma's wrath was formidable _ more than 1,000 homes in the tri-county area still are uninhabitable _ it was not a major system when it raked South Florida on Oct. 24 with sustained winds up to 110 mph. A Category 3 or stronger hurricane, on the other hand, could cause immense destruction.

Mayfield said after coping with one storm, people have a tendency to take the next one lightly. He points to those who survived Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 that bashed Mississippi in 1969, then let their guard down for Katrina last August. Camille killed more than 200 in Mississippi and Louisiana, while Katrina killed more than 1,800.

"I'm convinced Camille killed more people last year than it did in 1969," he said.

Tony Carper, Broward County's emergency management director, said he expects high anxiety when the first tropical storm forms, particularly because forecasts call for another potentially furious season. Indeed, the Atlantic basin has entered an era of heightened storm intensity that could last 10 to 20 more years.

But he also hopes Wilma was a "wake-up call."

It was for Doris Roth, who lives on the eighth floor of a Pompano Beach condo near the ocean. She said she would evacuate if ordered to do so. But she also has spent $4,300 for shutters and purchased an ice-cooler, "tons" of water, canned goods and batteries in case she stays put.

"This is the most prepared I've ever been," she said. "I can't imagine, if you lived here for the last storm, why you wouldn't want to be ready."

For most people, deciding whether to evacuate or make preparations can be a complex process, said Betty Hearn Morrow, a professor emeritus of sociology at Florida International University.

"People think about how strong a storm is, the chances it will hit their home, and, if they evacuate, what problems await, such as, will they get caught in traffic?" she said.

Several other factors come into play. People with comfortable incomes, a high education level, or children under 17 are likely to take precautions.

Conversely, those who are elderly, have a large family, live in single-family homes, have a pet and survived a previous hurricane are less likely to do so, she said.

"Males typically are more reluctant to evacuate than females," she added. "Men are less cautious and more likely to deal with whatever comes their way. They'll tough it out."

The elderly are the most stubborn about refusing to find safer ground, she said. More than 70 percent of those who died in New Orleans in Katrina were more than 60 years old.

"Some will say: `Look, I'm too old. Shelters are miserable; I don't want to leave my home. If God wants to take me, he'll take me,'" she said.

Working people sometimes fail to adequately prepare because their employers require them to work until the last minute, Morrow said. Others don't understand the significance of hurricane watches and warnings.

The ultimate problem: "People will wait until the last second to make decisions," she said.


If taking action before a storm seems like an ordeal, consider the anguish that awaits those with no preparation at all, said Diane Foit, chief executive officer of Corporate Crisis Management, a Tampa firm that helped federal officials sort out Katrina's aftermath in New Orleans.

The stress of a damaged or destroyed home or losing a loved one can be enormous, she said.

"In the beginning, everyone's happy to be alive," she said. "A week later, it's `don't touch my stuff.' Two weeks later, they're exhausted."

Yet the Mason-Dixon poll found that 83 percent of coastal residents still haven't fortified their homes, 68 percent haven't assembled a survival kit, including a first-aid kit, food, water, medicines, flashlights, a radio and batteries, and 60 percent have no family plan.

Although Florida is better prepared than other states, too many residents still ended up in long lines for food, water, ice and fuel after Wilma hit, authorities said.

"I was disappointed with the preparation for Wilma," said Rusty Pfost, head of the National Weather Service in Miami. "I thought it was disgusting, the long lines."

It's possible residents didn't adequately prepare for Wilma because they were overwhelmed by continuous news coverage, said Carlos Castillo, Miami-Dade County's assistant fire chief and former emergency management director.

"Maybe it was too much. People were saturated by the message," he said.

But others say repeated threats have spurred them to be even more prepared.

Mal and Marilyn Schneider lost power in hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004, then again in Wilma last year. Now they have purchased flashlights, a grill, a small television and other extras for their Boynton Beach condo.

"We were always prepared for an electricity breakdown, but this time we went a step farther," said Mal Schneider, 77, a retired salesman. "We're prepared for the worst."


(c) 2006 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Hurricane Wilma

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