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Ready for hurricanes?

As Crist warns gas stations to be prepared, disaster officials point the finger at all of us.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published May 17, 2007


FORT LAUDERDALE - Florida has told dozens of gas stations around the state they could face legal action if they don't buy generators to keep gasoline flowing after the next natural disaster.

Gov. Charlie Crist made the announcement Wednesday to punctuate a larger point:

Everybody get ready.

A busy hurricane season is two weeks away, starting June 1 and running through Nov. 30.

More than 4,000 emergency management officials, most from Florida, are gathered here to make sure everyone is well prepared for the next dangerous storm that slams into the Sunshine State.

The most recent projections call for 17 named storms, including nine hurricanes, although such early predictions have proved spotty in the past.

Emergency officials said they are constantly working to improve their efforts, with such innovations as a new state-funded warehouse in Orlando for more than 500,000 gallons of bottled water, nearly 400,000 meals and more than 6,000 tarps.

They said they are working hard to make myriad emergency managers -- local, state and federal -- work as a team. And they recently stepped up efforts to work with big retailers like Publix so they can reopen and start selling food soon after a storm.

But many officials were blunt on Wednesday in discussing what they suspect may be Florida's weakest link in hurricane preparedness:

Floridians.

Soon after Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida in 2005, thousands of people were waiting in line for food and ice. That meant they had not prepared at least three days' worth of food, water and medicine.

"What happened during Wilma should not happen in any state. That was not a devastating hurricane. ... It did not tear houses down," said Federal Emergency Management Agency director David Paulison.

Paulison, who replaced the much-criticized Michael Brown after Hurricane Katrina, is a Miami native and former Miami-Dade fire rescue chief, who still has a house in South Florida.

After Wilma, he said, "my family was out there in the back yard cooking chicken and black beans and yellow rice on the grill right after the winds died down. There should not have been tens of thousands -- tens of thousands! -- of residents standing in line for food and water and ice literally hours after the storm. That took resources away from people who really needed it."

State emergency management director Craig Fugate said the public is complacent about preparing for hurricanes, even though the state was battered in 2004 and 2005. The fact that no hurricanes hit the U.S. last year because of El Nino conditions that no longer exist probably won't help, he said.

"You would think, sort of like putting your hand in the fire, if you get burned you'd learn. ... We seem to go back to being complacent because it didn't happen last year," Fugate said.

"People in Tampa told me they went through the hurricane in 2004. I said, I'm sorry you went through the tropical storms, you didn't get hit with a hurricane."

Former National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield said he's concerned that the Tampa Bay area's long history of missing hurricanes -- no direct hit since 1921 -- could lead people to take safety for granted.

"It can happen and it likely will happen again sometime, and you better have a plan. You can't wait for the hurricane come knock in your door to fire out what you're going to do," Mayfield said.

A lackadaisical attitude isn't the only thing that could affect Florida. Bill Proenza, director of the National Hurricane Center, said he's concerned that a weather satellite called QuickSCAT is past its prime. It was designed to last five years, has been operating for eight, and is now on a backup transmitter. Without it, the accuracy of predicting storms 48 hours in advance could decrease by 10 percent. There is no funding to replace it, which would cost more than $375-million.

The gasoline stations Crist is targeting have a large number of pumps and are close to interstate evacuation routes. Keeping those stations open could help people who are evacuating. They total 254 statewide -- two in Hillsborough, one in Pasco and none in Pinellas or Hernando -- and Crist said about half do not have generators as a law passed last year requires.

But gas stations aren't the only ones getting a stern message.

Fugate cited the example of a poor single mother who might not have enough time or money to put away even a few days' worth of supplies. He said he understands that. And that makes it even more important for everyone else to be prepared, he said.

"When you don't, she suffers. Her children suffer. Our frail elderly suffer. People with disabilities and no resources, they suffer. Because if all of our resources are distracted to the people who should have and could have and didn't, then it's those people that suffer. So wake up, Florida. It's hurricane season. Get ready. Get a plan."

Staff writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or 727 893-8232.

Fast Facts:

 For more hurricane information from the state: www.floridadisaster.org.