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With hurricane season looming, officials fret about residents' apathy

ORLANDO — More than 1,000 emergency management officials, meteorologists and other disaster service workers gathered at the National Hurricane Conference this week and there was one particularly hot topic: how to get everyone else to pay attention.

Florida hasn't had a direct hurricane hit for almost five years, making the state vulnerable to hurricane season apathy. So during one three-hour session Wednesday, a room full of attendees brainstormed fun and catchy ways to get the message of danger across.

"Maybe we all need to collectively lighten up a little," said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president of Tallahassee's Federal Alliance for Safe Homes. "Do we take ourselves so seriously that people tune us out?"

Some of the journalists and weather experts on the lead panel, plus some people in the crowd, said spreading the word through schoolchildren was the way to go. Others thought they needed a jingle or slogan much like the effective "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute." Or maybe just change their vocabulary a little.

"Like 'mitigation,' " said CNN's John Zarrella. "Can you change the word? I don't know, call it 'sex' or something."

Later, National Hurricane Center director Bill Read unveiled a campaign called the "Great Hurricane Blowout." People can pledge their safety preparedness on greathurricaneblowout.org and promise to take part in a nationwide lights-out "Dine in the Dark" event on June 1, the first day of hurricane season.

Slow hurricane seasons during the past couple of years, combined with the high unemployment rate and reluctance to spend money on supplies, has Florida officials worried. Experts are predicting an above-average hurricane season this year. It appears El Niño is going away, and the more hurricane-friendly La Niña could arrive in late summer.

First American Corp., a company that provides risk information to insurance companies, released a study this week that listed Tampa among the top three of 13 communities that face the most expensive storm surge threat. The area could potentially suffer $32.9 billion in residential damage if a Category 5 hurricane hit.

Even if the storm was only a Category 1, the report says, Tampa could still see $9.4 billion in damage from the surge.

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

With hurricane season looming, officials fret about residents' apathy 03/31/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 1:00am]
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