Poll: Many Coastal Residents Still Not Ready for Hurricanes

June 4, 2007

Many people along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts still lack a hurricane survival plan and don’t feel vulnerable to storms, despite Katrina’s dramatic damage and pleas from emergency officials for residents to prepare before the season starts, according to a recent poll.

The six-month Atlantic season started Friday, and forecasters have predicted an above-average year: 13 to 17 named storms, with seven to 10 of them becoming hurricanes and three to five of those major ones of at least Category 3 strength. One forecaster said odds were high that a major hurricane would hit the U.S. this year.

Nevertheless, 44 percent of people who live within 30 miles of the shore in 18 Atlantic and Gulf Coast states say they feel “not too” or “not at all” vulnerable to a hurricane, or to related tornadoes and flooding, according to the Mason-Dixon poll.

The poll also surveyed people farther inland in those states and found those residents were not as concerned or as prepared for hurricanes.

But forecasters warn that flooding and powerful winds from hurricanes can reach well inland, so people should be prepared even if they live far from the coast. Computer models show that a Category 3 storm that hits the New York metropolitan area could spread hurricane-force winds into Vermont and Canada.

National Hurricane Center Director Bill Proenza said a population shift to the nation’s coastlines may be contributing to the lack of storm readiness.

“We actually have more and more people … with little or no experience with hurricanes and tropical storms,” Proenza said.

Cathy Miller, who lives on North Carolina’s narrow Ocracoke Island, accessible only by ferry, says she won’t evacuate unless it’s a Category 4 or worse hurricane.

“I’ve never evacuated,” Miller said. “Every time I say that, though, I knock on wood.”

Public safety officials tell residents to stockpile at least a three-day supply of bottled water, nonperishable food and medicine. In Florida, officials urged residents to take advantage of a state sales tax holiday from Friday to June 12 on flashlights, gasoline cans, weather radios, plastic tarps and other storm preparedness items.

About 40 percent of hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. hit Florida, and its residents were more prepared than people in other states. Mason-Dixon also did a poll just of Floridians and found about two-thirds had a disaster plan, prepared a survival kit or said they felt vulnerable to hurricanes.

In the larger poll, about 40 percent of people who live within 30 miles of the coast had no hurricane survival kit.

Despite the predictions for a busy season, public safety officials worry that an uneventful 2006 lulled residents into complacency; there were only 10 named storms, and the two that hit the U.S. were weak.

Researcher William Gray, based at Colorado State University, said there was a 74 percent chance of a major hurricane hitting the U.S. coast this year. His updated forecast still predicts 17 named storms and nine hurricanes, five of them intense.

There is a 50 percent chance of a major hurricane making landfall on the East Coast, including the Florida Peninsula, according to the new forecast; the long-term average is 31 percent. The chance of a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast between the Florida Panhandle and Brownsville, Texas, is 49 percent; the long-term average is 30 percent. There is also an above-average chance of a major hurricane making landfall in the Caribbean, Gray said.

The 2005 season set a record with 28 named storms, 15 of them hurricanes; four of those hurricanes hit the U.S. coast, including Katrina, the third deadliest in U.S. history with a death toll topping 1,500.

“Nobody in this country thought we could lose 1,000 people in a hurricane,” said Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “We had too much technology, too good data, satellites and the best warning system in the world — and it happened. Preparation is how we change that.”

The poll was commissioned by the organizers of the 2007 National Hurricane Survival Initiative. The group includes the National Hurricane Center, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Emergency Management Association, the Salvation Army and others. Window clip maker Plylox Inc. and insurance company Travelers were also sponsors.

The May 10-15 telephone poll was conducted among people in 18 states along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Among the 422 people who live within 30 miles of the coast, the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.


Associated Press writer Mike Baker in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.


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