Hurricane preparation key

A beautiful summer Saturday afternoon might have seemed like an odd time to focus on stormy weather, but the Bethany Beach Police Department’s Capt. Ralph Mitchell said he’d planned the three-hour seminar on emergency preparedness to coincide with the height of the hurricane season, from August to October each year.

Despite the temptation to head to the beach Aug. 12 and the intense competition for parking anywhere in the vicinity of Bethany Beach Town Hall, citizens from the town and surrounding municipalities turned up by the dozen, nearly filling the town hall meeting room and impressing the local, state and regional officials who had given up parts of their own weekend to speak about hurricanes and emergency preparedness.

Jim Eberwine, the hurricane program leader at the National Weather Service’s Mount Holly, N.J., regional office, said the turnout was especially impressive considering that the 2006 hurricane season has been light so far. Similar seminars held in his home state, he said, often netted only two or three attendees.

Indeed, “Mother Nature has been extremely kind to the Delmarva Peninsula for the last several years,” Mitchell said in opening the seminar. “It’s been many years since we’ve been hit with a storm directly on the peninsula.”

As an oft-mentioned point of fact, Delaware has never been directly hit with a hurricane in recorded weather history. With only 21 miles of Atlantic coastline, storms tend to come ashore to the south and travel over land, which Eberwine said takes much of the punch — and all the storm surge — out of their impact when they finally do travel into the state.

And when Delmarva has been hit badly by storms, it’s more often been by winter nor’easters rather than summer’s hurricanes, Mitchell noted — most notoriously, the 1962 storm that devastated the entire peninsula’s coastline, destroying homes, flooding roads, carving inlets from the ocean to bay that didn’t previously exist, and totaling some $50 million in damage in today’s dollars.

But in either case, officials said, education and preparedness for such emergencies — and others, they noted — was key for ensuring the safety of residents and visitors alike. And the lack of hurricanes and other severe storms in recent years has led to complacency, Mitchell said.

“Most living here have never experienced a major storm,” he noted. “There have been a lot of near hits, but they have not experienced the real McCoy.”

So Bethany Beach Police Chief Michael Redmon and his public-information officer, Mitchell, had decided there was a need to inform and educate the people of Bethany Beach about what could happen, as well as the evacuation process and routes, shelter locations and what they might do with their pets in a storm situation.

Mitchell said they’d targeted four areas as keys to survival in an emergency: planning, preparation, awareness and readiness. And, along with the input of emergency planning officials from state and county agencies, they’d invited Eberwine to provide information on what exactly the area could expect in a bad storm.

Predicting the inevitable

Lest anyone think the Delaware shore fell out as a poor stepsister to his New Jersey home base, Eberwine led off his talk with the bad news: “Our first line of defense is Sussex County,” he said. “You are the southernmost county of the region. You are always on our minds.”

Eberwine also noted that while the forecast for the 2006 hurricane season had been for more storms than average, and more strong storms, only three had materialized thus far.

That, he said, wasn’t unusual, with warmer weather influencing Atlantic waters to bring about a peak in the season between August and October. And it shouldn’t leave people feeling complacent about how bad the hurricane season of 2006 might turn out to be. The 2005 peak season, he reminded those attending the seminar, had included Hurricane Katrina and a series of other strong hurricanes that had devastated the Gulf Coast and Florida.

Again, he referred to Delaware’s small Atlantic shoreline, compared to that of North Carolina (more than 400 miles) and even New Jersey (127 miles). “That’s a tough target to hit,” Eberwine said of Delaware’s tiny coast.

The vast expanse of Florida and Gulf Coast coastline, in warmer waters, was a key reason both location are so frequently hit with bad storms, he said. But this year’s hurricane season is part of a trend that indicated the likelihood of increased activity on the Eastern Seaboard, Eberwine emphasized.

That means education and preparation for hurricanes on the Delaware shore is more important than ever, he said, especially with the population growth the entire coastal region has experienced since its last severe storm. And people should be aware of what would happen — and what they would need to do — should a storm approach the area.

Eberwine’s first recommendation: consider making final preparations when a hurricane watch is issued. He said filling cars with gas, getting cash from the bank, stocking up on food and medicine, and making arrangements for pets was best done before a storm got close enough for a hurricane warning.

On the subject of pets, he noted how many residents of the Gulf Coast had refused to evacuate without their pets, which were not allowed in most shelters and are not currently allowed in any public shelters in Delaware, despite efforts to better accommodate them after what happened with Katrina.

Scary scenarios

Despite criticisms of the preparation and response to Katrina, Eberwine noted that warnings issued some 20 hours prior to its landfall suggested people take hatchets with them into their attics, in case they would need to break through to their rooftops. “They knew how bad that storm would be,” he said.

The key element in the damage and danger of Katrina was storm surge — something to which Eberwine said the Delaware coast was particularly vulnerable. With a deep continental shelf off the shore, he said, storms build up a surge that is then forced dramatically upward when it comes atop the continental shelf.

Storm surge often completely overtops barrier islands, such as nearby Assateague Island, but it can then travel up and over dune lines on the mainland, such as those in Bethany Beach and its neighboring towns. In those cases, the strength of a storm can be a major factor, Eberwine explained, as can its exact location.

A Category 1 storm hitting the area directly, he said, would likely top the dunes in Bethany Beach and reach Route 1 — the equivalent of a strong nor’easter. It could take down what had taken 50 years to build up in just five or six hours, he said.

With a high tide some 2 feet above sea level, he said such a storm could add 15 feet of storm surge, adding up to 17 feet of water that would top the first-floor doors of Bethany Beach Town Hall and chase anyone remaining in the town onto their second and third stories. But the wave action atop that 15 feet of surge would spell disaster for most structures. (Eberwine said President George W. Bush had been told to expect a 22- to 25-foot storm surge from Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi.)

Taking the model further, he also illustrated the case of a hypothetical hurricane headed right up the Delaware Bay, using the SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) model used by hurricane experts.

At Category 1 strength and 30 mph of forward speed, Bethany Beach came out “pretty much OK,” Eberwine said. South of the eye, there would be just a few feet of storm surge. But in New Castle, they could expect 9 feet of storm surge, some 6 feet in Philadelphia.

However, ratchet that same storm up to Category 4 strength, and Bethany Beach is looking at 16 feet of storm surge. New Castle would see 20 feet of water, Philadelphia some 18 feet. “The airport would become a marina,” Eberwine said of the Philadelphia transport hub. And being south of the eye of the storm would make little difference in the fate of the Bethany Beach coastal area in that case.

Those expecting to take refuge in the skyscrapers of urban Wilmington or Philadelphia, or on the top floor of a towering condominium building in Ocean City, for instance, would be risking their lives, Eberwine noted. He said storm winds can be as much as two categories higher at upper levels. That, he said, is why so many were evacuated from the hotels of New Orleans in advance of Hurricane Katrina.

In contrast, storms reaching the Delaware shore from inland are a low threat, even if they start off as menacing monsters. The trip overland robs them of their storm surge, Eberwine said, and it removes them from the warm waters that fuel terrific winds. That turns such storms into rainfall incidents, he said. They can be potential flooding hazards — notable after the recent Seaford flooding — but not on the same scale as a major hurricane looming offshore.

Long-term trends and technology

Eberwine noted that from 1851 to 2003, only four hurricanes had passed within 10 miles of Delaware. Three of those came from inland, with the fourth crossing the Virginia/North Carolina coast before traveling up parallel to Delaware’s coast, just offshore. That’s good news.

And just one out of 30 hurricanes make landfall on the East Coast north of the Carolinas, Eberwine said — more good news.

But that often means people are paying attention to hurricanes as they form off the coast of Africa — the kinds of storms that often fall apart before reaching the East Coast, he said. That brings up “cry wolf” scenarios for hurricane forecasters and emergency personnel.

Eberwine’s advice: don’t pay attention to those far-off African storm systems. Instead, look at storms forming near the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, which often head for the Mid-Atlantic coast. Other storms should be tracked by those in this area as they get closer.

Rarely, Eberwine said, there will be a storm like Hurricane Beryl, which basically formed off the Mid-Atlantic coast overnight. Some people went to sleep with a minor storm system nearby and woke up to realize it had become a hurricane. But there was a reason there was so little attention paid to that early storm this year.

“Fifteen years ago, we would have talked about evacuation with Beryl,” Eberwine said, “but technology has improved. It was a non-event.”

According to Eberwine, that means the residents of coastal areas need to pay more attention when notice of an impending storm is given, for those warnings are a lot more accurate and potentially life-saving in the modern era of weather forecasting. Forecasters might have unintentionally “cried wolf” in the past, but it’s a whole new game these days, and their warnings are to be heeded.

When the warnings come

Eberwine’s final notes for his audience were to get prepared early. He said that a hurricane watch should signal for them to get that tank of gas, the cash, their important papers and final emergency supplies. A hurricane warning equals mayhem, he noted, with everyone trying to accomplish those tasks at once.

And when a voluntary evacuation is called for, he recommended, those in the area should simply go.

That evacuation order and most everything related to it, before and after a storm, are the province of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency (DEMA). DEMA’s Roseanne Pack followed Eberwine at the Aug. 12 seminar, explaining exactly what the agency does — and does not — do.

“DEMA is not everything to all people,” Pack noted. “We don’t usually come in until the storm is gone.”

Most of the visible action prior to a storm, she said, is handled on a county and local level, with police and county emergency officials handling the brunt of preparations and managing local evacuation efforts.

While the Sussex County Emergency Management office in Georgetown is the pipeline for local officials to higher levels of aid, Pack noted the state’s “bridge line,” which can handle 60 lines of calls, allowing DEMA officials to work with the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), Delaware State Police, county emergency officials, the National Guard and municipal officials.

With the bridge line, Pack said, officials at all levels have access to the same information, helping to eliminate communication gaps and mistakes that might occur as the result of one agency passing along information to another.

For the coastal towns, she said, “Communication is key.” And DEMA is in charge of communication and coordination. Pack said the agency’s workers know where important equipment is and are able to connect those in need of that equipment with those who have it available.

Far head of an emergency, Pack said, those living in the area should be putting together a household emergency kit; a list of things that need their attention in an emergency; a set of important paperwork, including pet records, medical records, etc., stored in a gallon-sized zip-top bag to protect them from the weather; and prepare an emergency plan that all household members are familiar with.

“You should do this now,” she emphasized. And preparations should be focused on being self-sufficient, without electrical power, for at least three days, Pack said, because it could take that long for emergency workers to restore power.

When storms are heading to the area, Pack said, the bridge line calls begin, with the National Weather Service making recommendations in the event they feel their models call for an evacuation. Those recommendations would go to the governor’s office, where the governor could then decide to declare a mandatory evacuation.

Pack noted that some 10 years ago the Delmarva Emergency Task Force was formed, targeting planning and management of peninsula-wide emergencies. That recognized that, inevitably, some of those in Ocean City in an emergency would be heading to the north rather than the west.

The result is a phased evacuation plan, notifying those to the north of pending evacuations from the south so that the northern residents can consider early evacuation before their roads are clogged with those coming from the south. Additionally, Sussex County identified three evacuation zones — east, west and central, which would be evacuated differently because of their geography in infrastructure.

The county and state plans are very detailed in who does what and when, Pack said, with DelDOT prepared with enough cones to direct an evacuation on Route 1 from Fenwick Island to Five Points in Lewes, for example.

“Delaware is ready for a big hurricane,” Pack assured her audience. “Delaware has plans.” She said the plan works because of communication and making the public part of the team. As part of that team, she said, members of the public need to look at their friends, family, pets and neighbors as team members.

Part of being on that team involves preparation, she said, offering a new DEMA publication that details information on raising homes out of the floodplain, insuring homes against flooding and other storm-related basics. The new publication will soon be distributed at Bethany Beach town hall and other locations in the area, she said.

Communication a key

Pack also introduced Justin Kates of DEMA’s Communication Corps. Kates said the group was part of an effort to improve communications in the event of an emergency, as an arm of the Citizen Corps (which also includes the Volunteers In Police Service program).

The cooperative effort involves amateur radio operators from around the state, coordinating efforts with agencies such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army and National Guard. Kates said the group is actively recruiting new radio operators, as well as trying to bring new agencies and current licensed operators into the network, with the promise of assistance with licensing and training.

Members of the Communication Corps perform services such as reporting on local weather conditions (often as the first reporting in problem areas) and road closures, and passing along status and location information to relatives outside the area of an emergency.

Kates emphasized the need for amateur radio operators to assist in such circumstances, since cell phone systems are often rendered inoperable in natural disasters and existing radio systems used by emergency responders can get overloaded. And Ocean View police have recently taken the group up on its offer to establish a radio system at the new police station.

Preparation time is now

Eric Anderson of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program provided information on the details of planning and preparation for an emergency. His recommendations:

• Have two contacts outside the area that family members can contact to ensure all are safe;

• Likewise have two potential shelter locations outside the state, if possible, where family members know they can go in an evacuation;

• Know evacuation routes from your home;

• Practice an emergency plan with household members so they will known what needs to be done when that time comes;

• And know what to do should your family decide to shelter in place, or evacuate.

In the latter case, Anderson emphasized the importance of family members knowing where and how they will evacuate. In cases where it is safe to shelter in place, he said, additional preparation is needed:

• Be prepared to survive three to five days on your own;

• Have drinkable water stored, 1 gallon per person per day; sources include a household water heater, store-bought bottled water (two years of shelf life); self-stored bottled water (six months of shelf life); note: self-sanitizing water with bleach is no longer recommended;

• Have food supplies that are high in calories and low in salt, and try them before stockpiling large quantities: military MRE’s, non-perishable goods and camping rations (with additional water to rehydrate and heat them), snacks and treats;

• Dishes and utensils, keeping in mind there will be a lack of water with which to wash them;

• Have a source of shelter;

• Communication: portable radios (with a hand-crank for power or additional batteries);

• Batteries for supplies should all be the same size, if possible, for interoperability;

• Flashlight (again, a shake-powered one if possible, or additional batteries) and no open flames, due to fire danger;

• Pay attention to sanitation, washing hands often and having a supply of gel sanitizer;

• Safety gear and tools: work gloves, dust masks, heavy work boots, duct tape, garbage bags (can be used as ponchos), zip-top bags, rope;

• First-aid supplies, over-the-counter medicines and prescription medicines;

• Important documents, all in one, easily accessible location;

• Special needs, such as an extra pair of eyeglasses, playing cards, books and entertainment options.

“You should have these items ready to grab and go,” Anderson emphasized of his full list of emergency needs. “You’d be surprised how much better you feel knowing you have them ready.”

Along those lines, Eberwine noted that the appropriate time to consider installing hurricane shutters or making plywood window covers would be January, not when a hurricane is looming, due to time, availability of supplies and traffic.

Anderson agreed, recommending removable protection be numbered or otherwise labeled by location so they can be reapplied easily. Pack said home-improvement stores, such as Lowe’s, were now providing literature on how to properly construct and install plywood to protect windows and that store personnel could often provide additional advice.

But Pack also took the questions of the Bethany Beach audience to heart and said she planned to add such information to emergency-preparedness seminars in the future.

Anderson’s final word on the subject was to remember the following: “Houses are insured. They can be replaced.” The same cannot be said of people, he emphasized.

Pet owners pay attention

Pet owners also need to make a similar emergency stockpile for their pets, with identification, medical records, medications, food, water, bowls, leashes, etc., Anderson noted.

Anderson also said people with pets might want to consider making arrangements early to stay with friends or relatives inland, outside the hurricane strike zone, or to board their pets in such a safe location, or make reservations for a hotel or motel that was pet-friendly.

They might also need to consider evacuating early, he said, to ensure they could actually get to that safe location where their pets were welcome, rather than fighting traffic under a mandatory evacuation and perhaps being forced to leave pets in the car when a public shelter becomes the only option.

Anderson noted that Delaware Animal Disaster Services (DADS) has recently been formed to try to prevent the problems that happened with pets and pet owners in Hurricane Katrina. But, as yet, there have been no changes to the facilities available for pets in the event of an evacuation, he emphasized.

As it stands, some 20 pets might be sheltered at the SPCA facility in Georgetown, but that availability is limited and cannot be counted upon. So pet owners should plan far ahead and be ready to evacuate early so they can find shelter for their pets as well as human family members.

Local plans prepared

For his part, Mitchell detailed how emergency response and evacuation would work in Bethany Beach.

Though evacuation would primarily take place via Routes 1 and 26, he said, both roads are known to be prone to flooding and could be shut down as conditions worsen. Additionally, residents need to remember that the Bay Bridge Tunnel to the south and Bay Bridge to the west will be shut down as winds exceed safe levels, around 35 to 40 mph. In that case, evacuation would be to the north, via Route 1.

That all means those in the town, and surrounding areas, need to prepare to evacuate early, before storms near the coast and evacuation is mandatory.

They should also know area shelter locations, which would be announced on local radio and television. A master list of potential shelter locations exists, Mitchell said, but individual shelters would be opened on a case-by-case basis — so those looking to use area shelters will still have to verify what shelters are available in a given emergency.

Local and county officials can provide that information, as well as information about the lifting of an evacuation order, Mitchell said. The county EOC is available at (302) 856-7366, while the Bethany Beach police can be reached at (302) 539-1000. Both numbers should be kept handy in an emergency.

Mitchell detailed a timeline for a hypothetical evacuation of Bethany Beach:

(1) The order to evacuate: local officials communicate via the state bridge line; National Weather Service advises specific areas to recommend or mandate evacuation; calls to evacuate will increase in frequency over time; the governor could issue a mandatory evacuation.

(2) Evacuation proceeds: Bethany Beach police, firefighters and police volunteers go door-to-door, in five identified sectors in the town, notifying residents to evacuate and providing them with a copy of the evacuation order, shelter information, evacuation route map and evacuation guidelines;

Mitchell noted that while Title 20, Section 3177, of Delaware Code allows police to compel evacuation, police might not “hog tie” a property owner to forcibly remove them. If the property owner is determined to risk their life, he said, police might leave that decision up to them.

Door-to-door notification will be done on three rounds, to try to catch anyone who didn’t answer their door the first time. And police would maintain a contact checklist to ensure all residences are notified. Those with special needs (oxygen, bedridden, in a wheelchair) should notify the police, who will arrange though DEMA for a special-needs shelter and transportation.

(3) Bethany Beach City Watch: Police will use their special calling system to call each home in the town, at the rate of 250 calls per hour per line available to them. Mitchell said a state emergency call system could also be used to supplement the town system, if needed. All land-line telephone numbers are in the town’s records for the City Watch system, Mitchell said, but those with no landline phone should call the police department to register.

(4) Stubbornness is risk: Those choosing not to evacuate in a mandatory evacuation situation should realize one thing, Mitchell said: “There will be a point in the storm where calls for assistance will not be answered. They will be on their own.” Emergency workers will themselves take shelter during the worst of a bad storm, he said, possibly for a few hours or more. He said he hoped no one would remain behind in such a case.

(5) Evacuation is targeted to be completed 24 hours prior to when 40 mph sustained winds are expected.

(6) After the storm: Bethany Beach officials will assess the town for debris, downed power lines, flooded or washed-out streets, and broken sewer or water lines before permitting re-entry. With that done, re-entry could be (a) fully unrestricted, if there is little damage; (b) partial, allowing those with proof of ownership in the form of tax records or deeds to briefly visit to assess damage; or (c) fully restricted, until it is declared safe to enter.

Mitchell said residents should listen to local radio or television for re-entry information, or contact the police (their number may be re-routed to a safe location), to find out when and how they might re-enter the town. They should understand that in the case of bad damage, re-entry might be days or weeks away, he said.

After the storm and re-entry, Mitchell said, DEMA would host a “town meeting” in which information would be provided on insurance, loans, etc., to help with recovery.

The information Mitchell provided detailed Bethany Beach’s plan, but some of those at the seminar were from neighboring towns and unincorporated areas of the county.

Pack said the state emergency call system would also be able to notify those residents of an evacuation, but they should keep informed through television and radio as well.

Such information is the final line of defense for residents of the state’s vulnerable coastal areas. Emergency officials want them to do their major preparation now, with the peak of hurricane season just ahead, and maintain their plans and emergency supplies throughout the year. That way, they will be as prepared as possible for any emergency, no matter when or how it comes.