How to Prepare for Hurricane Season in Florida

After two quiet hurricane seasons, emergency managers worry the public may be complacent. In Florida, state officials are pushing a message of personal responsibility so the public does not expect deliveries of ice, water and other necessities in case of disaster.

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Now, today marks the first day of hurricane season. Government forecasters predict it will be average or slightly above average. In the last two years those predictions were wrong. No hurricanes hit the U.S. in 2006 and only one made landfall last year.

In Florida, NPR's Greg Allen reports state officials are worried residents may have become complacent and overly reliant on help from the government.

GREG ALLEN: In other parts of the country June is a time for thinking about vacation plans and summer camps. But in Florida and along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the beginning of summer is also the beginning of hurricane season, and when people think about hurricanes, the place they go is to a home improvement store.

Mr. J.D. WYLAND(ph) (Manager, Home Depot): We're getting asked a lot more questions in regards hurricane shutters, accordion shutters, backup generators, what kind of supplies do I need.

ALLEN: J.D. Wyland is the manager of a brand new Home Depot store in Homestead, Florida. This is an area that should know hurricanes. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, made landfall here, destroying most of the homes and leading to the shutdown of an Air Force space. It's taken 16 years for this area to rebound, and Wyland said many of his customers are newcomers but he sees no sign of the last two quiet hurricane seasons have made people relax.

Mr. WYLAND: They're coming to us to ask us, you know, hey, when's the best time to prepare, what kind of stuff do I need, you know, when is it going to happen. They pretty much assume that we're getting our hurricane regardless of track record. There's just something about, I guess, south Florida or being in ground zero.

ALLEN: Floridians learned a lot about hurricanes when the state was hit by eight of them in 2004 and 2005. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005 many communities in South Florida went without power for weeks. Without power many gas stations and supermarkets remained closed. Federal and state agencies spent millions distributing water and ice to residents who waited in long lines.

The head of Florida's Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, says that experience led state officials to wonder if the public was too dependent on the government in times of crisis.

Mr. CRAIG FUGATE (Head, Florida Emergency Management Agency): Are we going to be a nation of victims and wait for somebody else to take care of us and abandon our responsibilities to our fellow citizens and take resources away from our most vulnerable citizens?

ALLEN: Fugate spoke recently at a conference of emergency managers. Officials in Southeastern coastal states are pushing the message of preparedness, asking people to stockpile food, water and supplies and to develop a hurricane plan. This year Alabama is making plans to open additional shelters if a hurricane fits because officials worry high gas prices may keep people from fleeing.

In Louisiana, the state says it's acquired new computer software to keep track of evacuees who are transported to state-run shelters. In Florida officials are now asking businesses to be prepared. Gas stations are now required to have emergency generators. Supermarkets and other retailers have followed suit.

Florida Emergency Management Head Fugate says after the storms of recent years, the state realized that businesses are a key part of any disaster response.

Mr. FUGATE: We did not talk to them during these hurricanes. We didn't know if their stores were open; we didn't know what they had going on. We operated as if they didn't exist. So, we duplicated so much of their effort, and in many cases we handing stuff out in front of an open store.

ALLEN: Which has led to a new policy. Both state and federal emergency managers now say they will no longer provide free ice and water to the general public. Instead, Fugate says, those supplies will be directed to people who are homebound or to poor or rural areas where no other help might be available. Instead of providing ice, Fugate says the state should focus on being ready for the big one, storms like the massive hurricanes that hit South Florida in 1926 and 1935.

Mr. FUGATE: If the great Miami hurricane hits today, it will dwarf the cost of Katrina. Estimates now based upon research that Dr. Chris Lansky and other researchers, say that could be $150 to 160 billion disaster. That's our history, folks.

ALLEN: The powerful hurricane of 1926 made an almost direct hit on Miami, claiming hundreds of lives and destroying most of the city's buildings. That history and the experience of Hurricane Katrina has led elected officials in Florida to push for the creation of a national catastrophe fund - a pool that would spread the risk for natural disasters among all U.S. taxpayers. Congress is now studying the idea.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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