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Hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst

Published September 21, 2005

I am pleased to hear from our local officials and our governor that our area and our state are well-prepared for hurricanes and that what happened to New Orleans can't happen to us. Like everyone else, I want to be reassured.

But I still have a few questions, including these:

How many of St. Petersburg's and Tampa Bay's poorest citizens evacuated last August in advance of Hurricane Charley, which was coming right at us as a Category 4 until it bent right at the last minute to kill a number of folks in sparsely populated Punta Gorda in a matter of minutes? How many aged and infirm were evacuated? How many would have died if Charley had stayed on course?

Why wasn't the mandatory evacuation ordered for Hurricane Jeanne last September earlier than midnight the same day the hurricane hit? Was that really enough notice?

Why do we think 53,000 is enough shelter spots for a county of nearly 1-million people (the second most densely populated county in the country)? How does that number compare to the number of poor and infirm people we have in this county? Aren't half of those spots in zones that would be evacuated if a Category 3, 4 or 5 storm came our way?

Why is it that St. Petersburg has done nothing to mitigate the damage expected to neighborhoods from storm surge at its wastewater treatment plants which, as Director of Pinellas County Emergency Management Gary Vickers pointed out last week, are particularly vulnerable here?

How long would it take for federal and state assistance, including the National Guard, to provide protection from looting, to get to the island of Pinellas after a Category 4 or 5, since studies show that all of our bridges would be out for months, and U.S. 19 would undoubtedly be damaged? Can our police provide adequate security in our city and neighborhoods in the interim?

Why is there only one pet-friendly shelter in Pinellas County (which, by the way, requires an enormous amount of bureaucracy before anyone can get in)? Most people aren't going to abandon their pets, no matter what the risk.

Are our local communications servers and wireless devices backed up with off-site providers? Do our local officials have satellite phones (since normal cell phones, not to mention electricity for charging them, probably won't work for quite some time after a severe storm)?

My colleagues and I at Eckerd College have spent a long year working to improve our preparedness for tropical storms and hurricanes; we know that our very survival as a college may depend on that planning and on being prepared in advance for the ravages and dislocations a severe direct hit would exact on our campus and our community. While we have made enormous progress, we have at least another year or so of work to do and much mitigation to achieve.

None of that will make much difference, however, if the city and county in which we live and work are physically inoperable, or socially dysfunctional, many months after a storm.

The tragedy of New Orleans has given us a glimpse at how inadequate planning can make a terrible event much, much worse. Let's make sure we are ready as we can, on this beautiful sandbar, be.

- Donald Eastman is president of Eckerd College, a national, private liberal arts college related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church (USA) in St. Petersburg.

[Last modified September 22, 2005, 13:18:02]

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