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Bay area's concern: Are we prepared?

After watching Katrina's damage, local leaders say they plan to take a critical look at their own disaster plans.

By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published September 7, 2005

After seeing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, leaders on both sides of Tampa Bay vowed Wednesday to assess just how prepared this area is for a catastrophic storm.

In St. Petersburg, the City Council moved to hold a workshop on its emergency plan.

In Hillsborough, commissioners considered a meeting of county officials from around Florida to discuss what lessons can be learned from Katrina and its aftermath.

And in Pinellas, County Administrator Steve Spratt has asked the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to convene a meeting of emergency officials from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties. No date has been set yet.

Topics for discussion could include a scarcity of shelter space, the area's high numbers of vulnerable residents, whether people will take storms seriously enough and the need for regional cooperation.

Pinellas is not New Orleans, and the strongest storm surge likely would wash out to sea in half a day.

But even though officials express confidence in their plans and first responders, a powerful hurricane here could easily bring the devastation now seen on the Mississippi coast.

"I fear widespread destruction of structures here," said Spratt, who came to Pinellas from Dade County. "The wind is going to blow them apart."

Yet at least one regional official questioned the value of a regional meeting.

Larry Gispert, Hillsborough's emergency manager, said he'll participate, but said he he wasn't sure one was needed.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction. There are lots of people asking all kinds of questions. They haven't read the Hillsborough County Emergency Plan," he said. "Everyone wants to know have you thought of this, have you thought of that? Yes, we have."

In a worst-case scenario envisioned by the National Hurricane Center, storm surge from a Category 5 hurricane would submerge half of Pinellas, forcing 600,000 of the county's 940,000 people from their homes.

The general rule is that a community should be able to house 25 percent of those who should flee during a catastrophe. The rest presumably will have left town or gone to stay with family or friends.

Given the 25 percent rule, Pinellas should have enough shelter space for 150,000 people. But its public shelters - mostly schools on elevated land that have been built to withstand storms - have space for only 70,000.

Hillsborough also lacks the recommended amount of shelter space, but it's in better shape than Pinellas.

During a Category 5 storm, planners say 482,000 people would need to evacuate. Following the 25 percent rule, Hillsborough should be able to house 120,500 people. It has shelter space to accommodate 75,000.

"Given our deficit, could Hillsborough take our evacuees?" Spratt said.

Some local leaders say their greatest concern is that so few people listen to their efforts to convince residents about the need to prepare seriously and heed evacuation orders.

For example, despite a mandatory evacuation of low-lying areas and mobile homes as Hurricane Charley approached last year, only 9,000 Pinellas residents went to shelters.

Emergency planners say they hope the images of death and destruction along the Gulf Coast, as well as the testimonials of those who chose to brave Katrina, will increase the number of people willing to evacuate, Spratt said.

Even as Katrina has local leaders pondering what improvements are possible their storm preparedness plans, a stubborn public remains an obstacle.

"They need to take a vested interest in their own safety," said Pinellas emergency management director Gary Vickers. "We as government can't go out and write every's body's disaster plan for them."

Another matter of concern is the area's large number of vulnerable residents. Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor wants to focus on how to evacuate the elderly, poor, disabled and others with special needs.

It's a daunting job.

In Pinellas, some 205,830 people are 65 or older; in Hillsborough the number is 127,400. Pinellas ranks first in the state in the number of mobile homes with 47,780. Hillsborough is fourth with 29,260.

Plans exist to help these populations.

Pinellas residents without transportation can call the county and arrange a ride to a shelter. School and transit buses are in place to evacuate hospitals and nursing homes.

In Hillsborough, there are 10 hurricane evacuation bus routes, allowing evacuees to hitch a ride to a shelter on HARTline.

Using 40 buses, each carrying 60 people, HARTline can ferry about 2,400 people an hour to safety.

By state law, shelters must be able to withstand at least Category 3 hurricanes, which pack winds of between 111 and 130 mph. Plans call for people to use the shelters even in a Category 5 storm, however, when winds are more than 155 mph.

Spratt said the shelters are generally able to survive storms stronger than a Category 3, though they may lose some of their roofs. During a Category 5, he said, people would be directed to interior areas of the shelters and away from windows.

Hillsborough leaders say they have enough food stocked to feed those in shelters for about a week. In Pinellas, food would run out in 72 hours. By that time, the cavalry should arrive in the form of state and federal aid.

Another aim of a regional meeting might be to coordinate decisions on roads and bridges.

Spratt also pointed to Hurricane Francis last year, when a dispute arose between Clearwater and Tampa over whether to close the Courtney Campbell Parkway, which was being battered by waves.

It was unclear who had the authority to clear the bridge, Spratt said. Finally, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office closed it. And there are potential problems that better regional planning might not be able to address, at least not immediately. For example, Vickers said he is aware that some Tampa Bay sewage treatment plants are uncomfortably close to bodies of water that could overwhelm them in a flood, causing a spill.

"I will be honest with you," Vickers said. "I have always been concerned about those facilities."

-- Times staff writer Will Van Sant can be reached at (727) 445-4166. Times staff writers Janet Zink, Bill Varian and Jon Wilson contributed to this story.
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