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US coastal buildup makes hurricane evacuation harder

As more and more Americans relocate to the sunbelt states of the lower Atlantic and Gulf coasts, they bring with them potential vulnerability to a major problem -- hurricanes.

So worried federal and local safety officials are beginning to take action to minimize the impact of the problem before it happens.

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Recent studies completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers show that thousands of people could be stranded if a hurricane should strike many of the densely populated low areas along those coasts. Yet it is into such areas that many newcomers are heading.

In fact, about 50 percent of the people moving to Florida will be living in places that are flood-prone during a major hurricane. Moreover, the vast majority of people living in the state now have never experienced a hurricane, and officials are concerned they may not understand its destructive power.

The most vulnerable area probably is the Keys, where preliminary studies have shown that it would take up to 24 hours to evacuate everyone on that string of islands to high ground before a major hurricane hit.

Almost as vulnerable is the Tampa Bay area, where hundreds of thousands of people live on barrier islands and lowlands.

Col. James Adams, district engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers in Florida , says evacuation studies have pinpointed the problems facing local governments with an approaching hurricane. Now, he says, solutions have to be found.

The corps will be using the information it has gathered to try curb the growing problem, Colonel James says. One way will be to set more stringent requirements for new construction on barrier islands.

"It is likely that during the processing of a [construction] permit application, discovery that the proposed activity would stress an already overburdened evacuation route might lead to not granting a permit," he says.

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Developers on barrier island will be required to show that they have taken evacuation into account in their plans, he says --whether it means providing more bridges or constructing high-rise buildings to withstand the wind and storm surge of a hurricane.

But a continued education of people living in dangerous areas also will be required to ensure that they do not do foolish things when a hurricane approaches, James says.

"If each child received four hours of hurricane education each year for Grades 1 through 12," he says, "when that child leaves high school, his preparation is intrinsic and his reaction predictable."

A study completed by the corps and a local planning agency found that evacuation of the Tampa Bay area would mean moving up to 900,000 people and would take between 14 and 17 hours, whereas reliable hurricane forecasts can be made only 12 hours or less in advance.

Neil Frank, director of the National Huricane Center in Miami, told local and federal officials gathered for the National Hurricane Conference in St. Petersburg recently that "the Tampa Bay area is one of the most difficult areas to evacuate in the United States because of the high concentration of people living on barrier islands."

Adds Roland Eastwood, director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council: "Each year, the population on barrier islands increases, but the number of roads and bridges stays the same. That means an increase in the evacuation time."

And, he says, "People who live on barrier islands generally are retired, older . . . and they are not the best drivers, especially in emergency situations. These will be the people evacuated first."

Mr. Eastwood, whose agency compiled a hurricane evacuation plan for the Fort Myers area, is concerned that mass confusion could occur if a hurricane should suddenly veer toward that city. There have been no hurricane drills there, he says, so people in the command centers will not know each other. Police officers will never have seen the traffic control plans until the day the emergency happens. The evacuees will never have been to their destinations.

Guy Daines of the Pinellas Country (St. Petersburg-Clearwater area) Department of Civil Emergency says his county govermment would have no choice but to issue an evacuation order 17 hours in advance of the time a hurricane was predicted to hit land, even though the chance that it would veer away from his area would be high.

"We have to ensure that people understand that we may have to cry wolf," he says, "but that by crying wolf, we may save people's lives."

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