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Days before storm, they'll say: Go now or stay

Because clearing the bay area would take four days, officials urge residents to plan to stay in a non-evacuation zone.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 2000


Too many people, too many cars on too few roads, too little time.

The evacuation numbers in the Tampa Bay area just don't add up. In fact, they haven't added up for years.

"To really clear a populated area like ours we would have to issue an evacuation order long before we even set a hurricane watch, not to mention a warning," said David Bilodeau, director of Pinellas County Emergency Management.

In an evacuation study released Monday, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council reported that clearing some areas could take nearly 100 hours. But since no one knows where a storm will go four days before it makes landfall, officials won't be issuing any evacuation orders that early.

"We'd be evacuating 50 percent of the state two or three times every season," said Bilodeau.

So this year, during the hurricane season that begins June 1, expect to hear some blunt talk about evacuations. Specifically, expect to be told that if you insist on leaving the area, you will have to leave days in advance of the storm. Therefore, you will be told, plan a short journey to a safe area near home -- perhaps the home of a friend or relative in a non-evacuation zone.

Both Bilodeau and Nance Schapira, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County Emergency Management, noted that finding a safe area near home has been the evacuation philosophy in the Tampa Bay area for years. The experience with Hurricane Floyd last year, coupled with the planning council's new clearance times, convinced them they needed to emphasize the plan.

Floyd struck near Cape Fear, N.C., on Sept. 16 last year with winds of about 100 mph, then headed north to New England. Fifty-six deaths in the United States and another in the Bahamas made Floyd the deadliest U.S. hurricane since Agnes in 1972.

The evacuation for Floyd put about 3-million people on the road. It was the biggest such event in the nation's history, and it made a mess of the Interstate Highway system in the Southeast.

Of the approximately 2-million Floridians who left home in advance of Hurricane Floyd last September, about half were "shadow evacuees," meaning they were not in an evacuation zone and could have, should have stayed put.

"People heard that Floyd was Andrew's big brother," said the planning council's Betti Johnson, "and so a lot of people just left. We need to find a way to make people change that behavior. They have to find a relative or a friend, on higher ground."

"We're shifting our emphasis," Schapira said. "We will be telling people to travel the shortest distance possible."

Colorado State University hurricane forecaster William Gray has called for a "moderate" season in 2000, with 11 named storms, seven of those becoming hurricanes, with three of the seven intense.

Hurricane deaths blamed on inland flooding

MIAMI -- A study of U.S. hurricane fatalities shows that inland flooding causes the most deaths, but storm surge remains the leading threat of death along the East and Gulf coasts, particularly South Florida

Of the 600 people who died in U.S. hurricanes between 1970 and 1999, 354 -- 59 percent -- drowned or were killed by some other trauma caused by inland flooding, according to Ed Rappaport, chief of the National Hurricane Center's technical support branch and the study's author.

Almost half of those -- at least 150 -- drowned in motor vehicles stuck in rising waters.

"Water comes up so fast and converges with rivers and streams. Motorists cannot tell the depth of the water over a road," he said.

Before the study, experts believed that up to 90 percent of hurricane victims died in storm surges, but the study showed that only six people -- 1 percent -- died in surges during the past 30 years. Wind-related incidents killed 72 people -- 12 percent of the fatalities.

But Rappaport said storm surge still has the potential to kill thousands in hurricane-prone coastal areas. South Florida is particularly vulnerable to storm surge because of its highly developed coastline, flat terrain, low elevation and vulnerability to hurricanes.

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