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Storm's-eye view: A worse season ahead?

Experts at governor's conference share warnings about the coming hurricane season.

By JEAN HELLER
Published May 12, 2005


TAMPA - With some parts of the state still struggling to recover from the 2004 hurricane season, Gov. Jeb Bush warned emergency managers Wednesday that the next six months could bring worse.

"The upcoming hurricane season could present us with challenges we didn't see in 2004, believe it or not," Bush said at the opening session of the Governor's Hurricane Conference here.

On the plus side, Florida officials have been able to identify some of the weaknesses that surfaced in their response system last year, and will be better equipped this summer to deal with storms and their aftermath, the governor told 2,900 conference participants from all 67 Florida counties.

Forecasters think the United States and Caribbean are in the midst of what could be several decades of frequent, intense storms. So a record number of state, county and municipal managers came to the conference to swap stories, suggestions, problems and solutions and to hear from experts about what to expect this summer.

Bush told the session he was heartened by recent surveys that found 70 percent of Florida residents living within 5 miles of a coast have hurricane evacuation plans.

"But I'm also concerned because that means 30 percent don't, and that's a lot of people," Bush said. "Everyone must be responsible."

Among aspects of storm response that have improved, Bush said, are communications among state, federal and local agencies; food, water and ice supply pipelines; better plans to handle special-needs storm victims for long periods of time, and more storm-proof communications equipment.

"As well as we did ... We are going to do it better," Bush said.

He invoked a green, eraser-like cartoon character to describe the state's hurricane response motto: "Semper Gumby," Bush said. "Always flexible."

Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, said 2004 saw 15 named storms, nine of which were hurricanes. Six of the hurricanes were classified as major. Five of the storms hit Florida, four as hurricanes.

Nationally, the storms affected 600,000 square miles and inflicted $45-billion in damages.

While stopping short of predicting a repeat of last year, Mayfield said, "We've had more hurricanes and tropical storms in the decade since 1995 than ever before, and we are in a very active period that could last another 10 to 12 years."

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been praised for its rapid response to storm victims, received a standing ovation from the crowd, after which he quipped, "You just love me for my money."

More than 9/11, more than tornadoes and massive floods, the hurricanes of 2004 taxed FEMA to its limits, Brown said. He promised to keep the recovery funds flowing as fast as possible, but took a verbal swing at the people who live near the state's coastlines but have no hurricane plans.

"That 30 percent are people who just don't get it," Brown said, adding that every resident without a plan will put emergency response workers in danger performing rescues and evacuations that shouldn't have been necessary.

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 00:52:49]


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