More communication, education needed in hurricanes

Published 11:29 pm Thursday, April 9, 2009

Graphics that show the risk of storm surges are just one way officials and emergency responders hope to better prepare themselves and coastal residents for the 2009 hurricane season.

Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, said at the National Hurricane Conference on Wednesday that most coastal residents have a hard time understanding storm surge risk and the center didn’t communicate the threat well during Ike, which stormed ashore in Galveston in September.

He told hurricane responders from around the country that he hopes the new graphics will help in the 2009 storm season, which begins June 1.

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The center had the estimates last year, but didn’t show them in graphics. Thirty-six hours before Ike struck, Read said they estimated Galveston had a 50 percent to 60 percent chance of having more than 10 feet of water from the storm surge.

“If that was available then and someone took the time to look at it, they’d go ‘Holy Cow,”’ Read said. He said he thinks that information combined with an official call to evacuate would encourage more people on the coast to leave.

More than 35 people died in Ike in Texas.

Read also pinpointed faster mobilization and public education as major issues ahead of the 2009 hurricane season.

“A lot of people in the decision-making mode that have to move big things do understand that you’re making your calls when there’s less than 20 percent certainty,” he said. “I don’t know if our folks in the media or the public have that same level of understanding.”

The weeklong annual conference pulls together more than 1,300 workers in federal, state and local governments with emergency services providers to share hurricane experiences, learn about new technology and training and plan for the coming season.

Gov. Rick Perry and Nancy Ward, the interim head of Federal Emergency Management Agency, also spoke Wednesday to attendees at the conference.

“The whole goal is obviously to prevent loss of life and as much damage as possible, and they do it by sharing experiences, by sharing successful stories, and just ideas,” said Max Mayfield, director of the conference and a former head of the hurricane center.

Perry lauded local officials, search and rescue operations and utility companies for their response during Ike. He said the state’s performance illustrated the strength of an approach based on local response to local challenges and proactive evacuation efforts.

“Hurricane Ike didn’t make us question our strategy for one second,” he said.

Perry also called for lawmakers to support four hurricane bills he has marked as emergency items for the state Legislature this year. One would help pay back electric companies for costs from restoring services during disasters.

Ward told the conference that FEMA is prepared for the new hurricane season, and is working on ongoing problems such as temporary housing, inter-agency communication and public education.

“The only way to solve these problems is to bring everyone at all levels of government, the private sector, non-profit and voluntary agencies, to the same table and work out — hammer out if we need to — the answers to the challenges that we see each and every disaster,” she said.

FEMA said Wednesday that its last recovery center in Texas will shut down on Friday. More than 160,000 people have passed through 130 centers around the state since Ike, FEMA said.