For bay areas facing a major hurricane, early evacuation is crucial, say officials of Norfolk, Va., where Isabel struck last year.
By TAMARA LUSH
Published May 27, 2004
TAMPA - Officials in the Tampa Bay area should look to Virginia for a road map of how to handle a major hurricane, an emergency management director told hurricane experts Wednesday.
Hurricane Isabel caused $110-million in damage to Norfolk, left 98 percent of the population without power and forced 1,250 people into shelters. Schools closed for a week, more than a dozen buildings were destroyed and thousands of trees were felled, causing months of cleanup.
Jim Talbot, Norfolk's deputy director of emergency management, said he learned a lot from Florida's hurricane experts before the September storm. But during the 18th annual Governor's Hurricane Conference at the Tampa Convention Center, Talbot advised Florida officials to scrutinize every forecast and try to evacuate people as early as possible.
After a certain point, Talbot said, evacuations are impossible because of storm surge and flooding.
"Hurricane Isabel gave us a lot of time to prepare," said Talbot.
Talbot drew parallels between the Tampa Bay area and Norfolk. The populations are similar, and both areas have cities clustered around bays prone to storm surge.
Getting people to evacuate was one of the biggest challenges emergency officials faced, Talbot said. At one point, evacuations stopped because roads were flooded. Waist-deep water filled parts of the city.
Talbot urged Florida officials to think of the little things. For instance, Norfolk officials cleared downtown parking garages for emergency vehicles. They also had to consider what to do with several hundred cars left behind by cruise ship passengers.
"The day before Isabel it was total chaos in southeast Virginia," he said.
The hurricane conference drew hundreds of meteorologists, firefighters, emergency directors and other disaster experts.
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said 16 named storms were born in 2003. Seven became hurricanes. Isabel was the worst, with 17 deaths. Originally a Category 5 storm - the biggest - Isabel was downgraded to a Category 2 when it hit land.
Mayfield said meteorologists at the hurricane center are proud of their new five-day forecast, which closely predicted Isabel's path five days before it hit the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
But he cautioned not to expect such accuracy every time.
Everyone, from Talbot to Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, cautioned Floridians not to become complacent about hurricanes just because no big storms have hit the Sunshine State in the past decade.
"I call it hazard amnesia," Jennings said.
Said W. Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management: "They can issue the best possible forecast, but if the public does not respond, we cannot change the outcome."