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As hurricane season begins, five ways things have changed in five years

Forecasters are predicting an active hurricane season, which begins and runs through Nov. 30, much like the 2004 season of Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan and the 2005 season of Dennis, Katrina and Wilma. The comparison can produce a shudder for those who were in the Tampa Bay area then.

Much has changed, though, from communication, to shelters to evacuation zones. Here is a look at five areas of change, for better or worse:

TECHNOLOGY: This is perhaps the biggest area where scientists, emergency managers and the general public have all advanced. The National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service have made multiple improvements to their computer modeling, graphics, use of radar and other tools used for hurricane forecasting in the past five years.

In just the past couple of years, state and county emergency agencies have begun experimenting with Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the public. While officials still urge the use of battery-powered radios during power outages, they realize many people will use their cell phones for text messaging or to access the Internet.

And cell phone networks are more reliable than they were during Katrina. In Haiti, for example, most areas had cell phone service working within 24 hours.

HOUSING AND CONSTRUCTION: After the 2005 season, the housing market was still going strong and new home construction — with up-to-date building codes —was underway, particularly in Hillsborough and Pasco counties. That all changed when the housing bubble burst, a recession settled in and foreclosures skyrocketed.

This can be good and bad if a hurricane comes here, said Hillsborough County Emergency Management spokeswoman Holly Wade.

"I see a lot more empty houses, and to me that means less people to evacuate," Wade said. "But less people also means those structures aren't protected, and loss potential is greater for the community.

ELEVATION LEVELS: In 2006, evacuation maps were changed so slightly hardly anyone noticed. This year, they changed a lot.

Tens of thousands of families in the Tampa Bay area will find they are in areas more likely to evacuate if a hurricane heads this way. A plane affixed with new laser topography sensors flew along Florida's coastal areas and recorded new data last year that showed that some areas were more prone to flooding in a storm surge than previously thought.

The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council estimates 200,000 people from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee counties are in different zones. Hernando and Citrus also are affected, though no estimates are yet available. (The Tampa Bay area is the first in the state to update evacuation maps.)

SHELTER SPACE: As new schools with tougher building codes have been built over the past five years, Tampa Bay area counties have had the benefit of designating them as shelters during hurricane season. Still, no one knows if there are enough.

All local emergency managers urge the same message: If you are told to evacuate, do so. Find a friend in a non-evacuation zone, stay with relatives, go to a hotel or somewhere other than your home.

But if have no other option , emergency shelter will be available. Some counties have more space than others. For example, while Hillsborough County has 62 shelters for almost 1.2-million people, Pinellas has 31 for over 900,000 people.

That's an improvement for Pinellas, which had half as much space in 2006. And Hillsborough made a push 2006 to add more shelter facilities for pediatric special needs patients, something that many counties overlook in their plans.

ATTITUDES: After the onslaught of hurricane warnings and power outages in 2004 and the horror of watching Katrina wreck New Orleans in 2005, Florida's fear of hurricanes was at an all-time high.

But then they got a break with a relatively quiet 2006 season. Then again in 2007. And 2008. Last year, nothing.

How quickly we forget. And that's what scares emergency officials this year.

The recent survey found that 74 percent of people living in hurricane-vulnerable areas have done nothing to strengthen their homes and 36 percent haven't even figured out what they would do if they are threatened by a hurricane. Thirteen percent might not or would not evacuate even if ordered to leave, the survey found.

Gov. Charlie Crist and other state officials released those results at a hurricane conference last week . The same day, FEMA and NOAA administrators sent the same message: Forget about how quiet last season was, and remember what it was like in 2005.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

As hurricane season begins, five ways things have changed in five years 05/31/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 31, 2010 1:43pm]
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