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A Well-Warned Public Followed Emily's Stormy Approach and Retreat


HURRICANE Emily came to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and left just as quickly, leaving behind minor damage, eroded shoreline - and an exhausted but successful public-private warning system.

By the time the storm hit the North Carolina shore, the network of emergency personnel and broadcasters had already worked round the clock to evacuate the 110-mile-long stretch of barrier islands that lay directly in the storm's path. That network is considered to be a major reason recent storms have caused so few casualties in the United States.

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As it turned out, the hurricane's eye stayed out at sea, approaching no closer than 20 miles from Cape Hatteras, N.C. That spared the islands from the most destructive of the storm's 115 mile-per-hour winds. Emily eventually veered northeast, posing little threat to land.

``Twenty miles makes a lot of difference,'' says Clyde Cash, a North Carolina Power employee, working on a power line the morning after the storm.

The most extensive damage appeared to be around Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands, with flooding and minor damage in the communities of Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras itself.

In Kitty Hawk, police blocked off a section of highway where at least three beach cottages were destroyed by the storm's 15-foot waves. ``We have had nor'easters worse than this,'' says Bob Morris, Kitty Hawk police chief.

At press time, the only reported casualty was a surfer in Virginia Beach, Va.

Even when recent storms have caused extensive property damage, their toll on lives has been relatively light.

Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was responsible for 29 deaths, despite property damage of nearly $6 billion. Last year's hurricane Andrew, which caused $30 billion in damages, took 55 lives. Those totals are light compared with hurricanes Hazel and Connie, which in the mid-1950s were responsible for a combined 280 casualties.

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A major difference: Today's flow of information is faster and more reliable.

One of the key links in the storm-warning effort is broadcasters.

Television and radio personalities who managed to stay on the air during hurricane Andrew last year proved to be an important link to listeners trapped in their homes during that storm.

In North Carolina during this week's Emily scare, local broadcasters again proved their value.

Here in Elizabeth City, for example, staff at radio stations WGAI-AM and WCXL-FM regularly interrupted their music formats to update the storm's progress and broadcast evacuation plans.

By the time Emily left, the staff had stuffed a week's worth of work into about three near-sleepless days.

``People in this community really do lean on these radio stations for information,'' says station owner Bill Ray. ``We're supposed to know everything.''

At times, all 12 lines of the AM and FM stations were jammed with local callers. The staff regularly broadcast updates from the Associated Press wire. It also aired interviews with local emergency personnel and even staffers located close to the storm.

Thanks to new technology, the radio stations could track the storm's progress via a computer terminal hooked up to a national agricultural satellite network. The network provided up-to-date satellite and radar images of Emily's progress. (When a tornado roared through here a few months ago, WCXL and WGAI personnel used the system to track it and warn residents in its path.) ``To me, that's radio,'' Mr. Ray says.

All these technologies are a far cry from 1969, when Ray worked at a Charlottesville, Va., radio station and reported the coming of hurricane Camille. The storm dumped tremendous amounts of rain on the area, causing mud slides that claimed dozens of lives.

``We knew what was going on,'' Ray recalls. ``But there was no way to let 'em know.'' At that time, most people were not aware they could tune into radio for emergency information.

``The tragic loss of life, mainly because you couldn't communicate, that has always bothered me,'' Ray says. When he bought WGAI and WCXL, he put in backup generators and powerful equipment to get the word out. His new FM station, WCXL, started broadcasting its enormous 100,000-watt signal in January.

``We have been through quite a few evacuations over the years,'' Chief Morris says. ``The media has been a tremendous help. And the cooperation is improving all the time,'' he adds.

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