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Ready, set, go ...

... Or stay. What will you do? As a new hurricane season begins, emergency planners want you to think it through. Last year, residents pretty much ignored an evacuation order, and officials are worried that the next storm won't blow the other way.

By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 1999

If you are reading this, the emergency management teams throughout the Tampa Bay area have already cleared their first hurdle.

They've got you thinking about what you will do if a hurricane threatens, and most importantly, what you will do if an evacuation is ordered.

This is a big step, since last year's evacuation order in advance of Hurricane Georges -- the most extensive order since Hurricane Elena in 1985 -- was largely ignored. Making matters worse, it's not clear why so many people responded with a shrug.

In Hillsborough County, more than 160,000 people should have left their homes for higher ground but only about one-third that number did so. Emergency management director Larry Gispert says the storm was not taken seriously.

"I've talked to hundreds of people since then, and I don't know why they didn't," Gispert said, "but they just didn't. Some told me they were waiting for the "final word' to leave. They had the final word to leave."

Elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area, the response was similar.

David Bilodeau, Gispert's counterpart in Pinellas, said the fact that the county was never actually in a hurricane warning zone undoubtedly made some people reluctant to leave their homes.

"And the weather stayed pretty nice," he said. "If it had rained, even incidental to the hurricane, I think people would have taken the evacuation order more seriously."

In Pasco County, the decision to evacuate mobile homes and coastal areas was made the morning of Saturday, Sept. 26. Pinellas and Hillsborough, however, had made their decisions the night before. That head start resulted in local radio and television attention being focused on the two more populous counties to the south.

"We waited for the 5 a.m. (weather) advisory Saturday morning, but then had trouble getting the word out," said Michele Baker, Pasco's emergency management director. At one point, she said, Pasco officials considered overriding the audio signal on cable television channels to communicate a warning. Eventually, she said, the media responded and the threat diminished, more or less simultaneously.

Despite disappointment with the public's response, Bilodeau said he is "totally and completely comfortable" with his 1998 evacuation decision, even though the storm went elsewhere and many people yawned.

"If you don't start the (evacuation) process early," he said, "there is no way it can be done."

Gispert, too, said he would make the same decisions, given the same set of circumstances.

Given the difficulty Pasco County had spreading the evacuation word, Baker said she might not again delay a decision beyond the larger counties to the south. "All I can say for sure is that we will talk with the other counties, and base a decision on the hurricane scenario."

Some things to remember.

In general, Tampa Bay evacuation plans do not call for masses of people to leave the county. The roads would quickly jam, exposing drivers and passengers to the storm.

Instead, plans suggest people move to areas that will not flood during a storm, and then protect themselves from wind.

"Know your evacuation level, evacuate if you are told to do so, be prepared to stay at home if that's an option," said Bilodeau.

"Know what you will do and how long it takes to do it. Buddy up ... have a place to go and go there."

Pinellas calls the buddy-up principle the "host home" plan. Many people employ it without even knowing its name, he said, when they stay with friends or relatives or take refuge at their church or place of employment.

Bring the things you will need, he said, including a good attitude.

"This won't be fun."

There were 14 named storms in 1998. Ten of those developed into hurricanes, and three of those were major storms of Category 3 or greater: Bonnie, Georges and Mitch.

Last year's storms caused damage of $7.3-billion and claimed 23 lives in the United States, but the year will be remembered mostly for the horrific toll taken in Nicaragua and Honduras by Hurricane Mitch.

Mitch formed in the Caribbean on Oct. 22 and strengthened into a murderous Category 5 storm with sustained 180 mph winds. The formal count of the dead stands at about 10,000, but thousands still are missing and will not be formally added to the list until a decade passes.

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