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Evacuate, don't wait out storm

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The March storm that devastated Citrus coastal areas produced a storm surge of 8 to 12 feet. That's nothing compared with what a hurricane could do.

A Category 4 hurricane could carry 30 feet of water over western Citrus, threatening lives and property well inland, weather officials said at a hurricane seminar Wednesday.

"When you have large loss of life (in a hurricane), it's always because of water," warned Dr. Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables.

Sheets and an array of government officials told an audience of mostly retirees Wednesday morning in Curtis Peterson Auditorium at the Lecanto school complex that there are many things they can do to minimize their risks in case a hurricane strikes.

Most revolve around planning before stormy weather threatens.

Prepare a pack of supplies, including non-perishable foods, fruits, juices, water, battery-operated radios, paper plates and towels.

Learn which schools will serve as emergency shelters.

Plan for care of the family pet because emergency shelters will not accept animals.

If you plan to stubbornly ride out a storm in your own house, be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least three days because it may take at least that long before any help may arrive.

Don't even consider trying to stay in a mobile home during a hurricane because the structure is not likely to survive.

To punctuate the seriousness of the topic, Sheets showed slide after slide of Hurricane Andrew-ravaged South Florida.

He told a poignant story of a 64-year-old woman who would not leave her home during the storm because her five cats would be scared. When the first wall of Andrew passed over, she was still alive. The calm at the eye of the storm came and friends urged her to leave, but she declined.

When the rest of the storm passed over, she was pierced by a piece of wood. Her friends tried to call 911, but the lines were jammed. They headed to the highway, thinking they would be able to flag down an emergency vehicle, but the road was impassable.

She died three hours later.

"This is a story of isolation and a story of the degree to which people will go to protect their pets," Sheets said.

Sheets said that people may have gotten the wrong impression, that South Florida was so damaged by last year's hurricane because of shoddy construction.

"These structures were far better built than they were around the country and in Citrus County," he said.

Poor construction may have played a role in Dade County, but he stressed that even expensive, well-crafted homes were leveled.

Some were destroyed not because of poor construction, but poor style. As an example, he pointed to houses with big windows, cathedral ceilings and multiple roof lines.

"Just start off with a design like that and you've got a problem," he said.

Mobile homes should come with warning stickers just like cigarettes, he said. "Mobile home communities are one of the finest, low-cost ways of life, but it's not the place to be when a hurricane comes ashore."

He suggested that new mobile home parks should be required to build a reinforced, community shelter where people could go in case of a storm.

Jim Soukup, Citrus County's assistant director of emergency operations, told the audience: "If you're asked to evacuate, go and go then."

The sky may be sunny when an order is given, but "the further you delay, you risk being trapped" by traffic or wind.

Jeff Dawsy, the newly appointed director of emergency operations, said that during the March storm, there were many people who did not evacuate when that was first suggested, but called for help hours later, complicating the rescue effort.

In a hurricane, there may be no second chance.

"In our plan, (when the wind hits) more than 50 mph, I'm pulling my rescue workers," Dawsy said. "I've got to get them a safe haven."

Dawsy said one of the most important things is for people to take charge of self-preservation. "It behooves you people to make plans," he said, later adding: "Buy into your own safety."

County and city officials said they are reviewing their response to the March storm so they will be better prepared for future disasters.

Sheets said that people should not be lulled into a false sense of security that because of Andrew another big hurricane won't come along for years. Andrew was a big storm with sustained winds of 140 to 145 mph and 170 to 180 mph gusts. And the cost of the devastation in South Florida has been at least $16-billion in claims that insurance companies already have paid.

"Can it happen again?" this year, he asked. "It's the same chance as last year."

Hurricane season extends from June 1 through Nov. 30. Traditionally, June and July are the prime months for a hurricane to form in the Gulf of Mexico. But mid August through Sept. 30 is a time when hurricanes are likely to spring from the Atlantic Ocean.