Gulf Towns Girding as Hurricane Season Opens On the first day of the 2006 hurricane season, Melissa Block talks with several people to find out how they're preparing for potential storms: Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas; Mark Segel, a spokesman for Cingular Wireless; and Gulfport, Miss., resident Tom Achee who is still repairing damage to his house from Katrina.
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Gulf Towns Girding as Hurricane Season Opens

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Gulf Towns Girding as Hurricane Season Opens

Gulf Towns Girding as Hurricane Season Opens

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

BLOCK: Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto. That's the start of this year's list of names for tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic. The hurricane season starts today and scientists at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predict it will be, in their words, very active.

BLOCK: They forecast 13 to 16 named storms. Eight to ten could become hurricanes and of those, four to six could be major hurricanes, Category 3 or higher. Today, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the government is better prepared this season.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: If you look back on last year and you look forward to this year, FEMA's ability and the federal government's ability to bring assistance and aid to people who need it has been dramatically increased because we have been able to put all the assets of DHS at the service of FEMA when those assets are required.

BLOCK: In this part of the program, we're going to hear about some of the preparations being made. We'll hear from a city along the Gulf of Mexico, from a big cell phone company and from a man who's still putting his house back together after it was damaged by Katrina.

SIEGEL: In Texas, state officials have a plan for hurricane season, actually, quite a few. They've got a plan to reroute traffic to avoid the colossal interstate backups that happened as Hurricane Rita approached last year. They've also vowed to provide busses for people who rely on public transportation.

BLOCK: For Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, that's all fine but it's just not enough. The city is home to about 60,000 residents plus 50,000 more during the summer, and the island has long had its own storm emergency plans. Mayor Thomas, thanks for being with us.

LYDA ANN THOMAS: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And what is Galveston planning for this hurricane season?

ANN THOMAS: We have a contract with the City of Austin this year in order to avoid what happened to us during the Rita evacuation, when our special needs population - those are our citizens who depend upon public transportation - when those citizens left Galveston and went to a state-provided shelter, it took two to three days to get there. And when they did get there, there was no room for them.

In order to avoid that we have our own contract with the City of Austin, who will provide shelter for 3,500 to 4,000 of our special needs citizens. We have an arrangement with our University of Texas Medical Branch Hospital to provide medical personnel on the evacuation busses and at the shelter in Austin.

So we're very confident this year that our residents will not go through what they went through last year in trying to evacuate to a place that normally takes two hours and ended up taking two days because of the people who live in the Houston area, getting on the roads much too soon and caused tremendous gridlock.

BLOCK: Since the State of Texas is providing busses on its own for people who need them, why does Galveston feel like the city needs to provide its own busses?

ANN THOMAS: The reason is because the cone, the area of impact for a Category 4 or 5 could be so broad. In the event that they cannot get here because they're having to take care of such a broad area, we want to have our own busses. Because after what happened on the roads last year, we know that there are a number of citizens who may not want to evacuate, and we encourage evacuation because lives can be lost if people don't leave.

BLOCK: Mayor Thomas, what do you do about the people who won't leave or can't leave?

ANN THOMAS: Well, the people who won't leave we've been educating for months. We will continue. We've explained and continue to explain that if they stay on the island, they stay at their own risk.

BLOCK: At the same time you're worrying about all the people who live in Galveston, at some time you have to start worrying about yourself too, I guess. What about your own safety?

ANN THOMAS: Well, I stay here. I've become - in Texas, the mayor in Galveston assumes sole authority for the island, so I stay here. The city manager, police, fire, there's a hotel here, San Luis, which is built on top of two World War II bunkers which puts us about 38 feet above the Gulf. We were very safe there last year, and that's where we will move our operations during the height of the storm.

BLOCK: Well, Mayor Thomas, thanks for talking with us and best of luck.

ANN THOMAS: Well, thank you. I appreciate the call.

BLOCK: That's Lyda Ann Thomas, the mayor of Galveston, Texas. It's not just cities, but also businesses that are revamping their emergency strategies. Cingular Wireless is among several cellular companies that have spent millions of dollars to try to make sure their networks are up and running quickly after a storm.

The company has devised its own sort of quick reaction force, kind of like MASH units for cellular service. Cingular Wireless spokesman Mark Siegel says there are two elements. First, mobile access command headquarters, known as MACs.

MARK SIEGEL: These are fully equipped units that can be deployed and operational within two hours of being brought into an area that's hit by a disaster. And they have generators. They have a satellite dish for constant communication. They are connected to networks. They have a private phone system. And they can house more than 30 technicians who can work from them at any given time.

Separately, we have villages for the folks who would come down to work and these have two big sleeping tents with carpet, showers, bathrooms, washers and dryers, air conditioning and heat, of course, if you need it in the cool of the evening. Each can hold more than 80 people. And we've even preordered 12,000 ready-to-eat meals, just in case.

BLOCK: When Cingular was trying to make sure that it had its ducks in a row this year, who did you consult with in trying to figure out what you'd need in these villages? It sounds like a military operation, in some ways.

SIEGEL: That's really not a bad analogy because something like this has to be carried out with a great deal of precision. It's a formidable logistics challenge to make sure that the right equipment and the right capabilities get to the right place at the right time. And we sought feedback from a variety of places, but mainly from the folks who were on the front lines of the hurricane and other disasters, telling us what they needed, what we could do better.

BLOCK: I would guess this is a pretty competitive thing. In other words, if your rival wireless company manages to get its network up and running, you're going to lose customers. People are going to go over to that service, right?

SIEGEL: Well, our focus in a situation like this is, first of all, making sure that our employees are okay and second of all, restoring service to our customers just as soon as possible. Believe it or not, the issue of competition is not foremost in our minds. If we do the right things, customers will see that we're responsive and they will feel good about us. And that, in a sense, that will take care of any competitive issues. But in a natural disaster, frankly, that's the last thing in our minds.

BLOCK: But if they can't make a phone call on Cingular and they know that their neighbor can make one on your rival, chances are they're going to switch, aren't they?

SIEGEL: And we hope that that never happens, and that's one of the reasons that we want to do even better this year, restore service even faster than we did last year. But the main focus is on taking care of our customers.

BLOCK: Mark Siegel is a spokesman for Cingular Wireless in Atlanta. Mr. Siegel, thanks for talking with us.

SIEGEL: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Tom Achee has relied on his cell phone while working on his house in Gulfport, Mississippi, this year. While he and his wife took shelter in Mobile, Alabama, during Katrina, their house took on several feet of water.

Tom joins me now on the phone from Gulfport. Tom I met you just after Hurricane Katrina last year and you were working on your house then. You're still at it.

TOM ACHEE: Yes, have been since the storm.

BLOCK: Well how does it look?

ACHEE: It's getting there. The house has been completely gutted. The infrastructure, the footings have been repaired and I'm actually adding a half bath to it as well since it's wide open. And the electric is now complete. We did a rewire job on it. And with the building inspections, we've added some hurricane clips to give us a little bit more strength in the even of another storm.

BLOCK: What are hurricane clips?

ACHEE: They're a metal strapping device that you strap over the studs and strap the studs to the rafters for extra strength.

BLOCK: With the new hurricane season starting today, does that feel just like an arbitrary date to you or is that a reminder of what might be headed your way again?

ACHEE: Well, to me it's just an arbitrary date. The seasons vary. Just like last year was a huge amount of storms, but it's just, to me it's an arbitrary date.

BLOCK: What about your neighbors? What are they saying?

ACHEE: It's interesting having gone to the laundromat this morning and courthouse and taking care of a little business. It seems as though that's on everybody's mind right now and that is, well, the hurricane season's going again and they're fishing to see how your reaction is going to be. So people are very aware of it, but you know you can overdo that, too, sometimes.

BLOCK: Do you have a cut-off point? A point for the level of the storm say at which you say we're definitely leaving town, we're not sticking around?

ACHEE: Yeah, well, we've had the rule of thumb that if it looks like it going to be pretty much a direct hit and the winds are 100 miles an hour or more, sustained 100 mile an hour or more, we usually leave. Don't take a chance on it. Don't expect the damage to be great at that point until it gets a little higher, but that's just the rule of thumb we use.

BLOCK: Are you hearing people say, people who maybe stuck around last year and wish they hadn't, are you hearing people say this year if it looks bad they're going to be leaving, they're not going to stick around?

ACHEE: Oh, absolutely. I think there's quite a few more people saying that. Now what people need to caution against though is I think it's going to be, I think, overkill probably this year and if that happens and there's the threat of a storm and it doesn't materialize to be what's being predicted to be, then people will lose some of the urgency that they probably should keep in mind.

BLOCK: Oh, I see sort of like a false alarm would make them complacent?

ACHEE: Right, but I suspect people will be watching the Weather Channel the minute they hear anything leaving the coast of Africa this year.

BLOCK: And that's a long way.

ACHEE: That's a long way.

BLOCK: Well, Tom best of luck to you this season.

ACHEE: Well, thank you and if I may, I'd like to say thanks to all the people who have been helping. There's a lot of the church organizations and Salvation Army and Red Cross just helping tremendously down here putting everything back together.

BLOCK: And still down there, still visible there?

ACHEE: Absolutely.

BLOCK: Tom, again, best of luck to you with this hurricane season, I hope all goes well.

ACHEE: Thank you much.

BLOCK: Tom Achee speaking with us from his home in Gulfport, Mississippi.

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