Tallahassee due for a major hurricane soon

Tallahassee has just been lucky, some officials say, about the city’s lack of devastating hits by hurricanes in the last 20 years. “Tallahassee has been dodging the bullets, but our luck may run out,” said Tallahassee Fire EMS Division Chief Nancy Herndon. “We are due for a major storm.”

Michael L. Black, a researcher for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Research Department, agreed.

Black said the city’s inland location avoids storm surges, but it is not too far inland for a major hurricane to create devastation.

Steering currents that determine a storm’s destination are not constant, Black said, and if a storm placed Tallahassee on its eastern side, where the strongest winds and energy exist, major damage could occur.

No city in Florida is protected from hurricanes, he emphasized.

Herndon fears residents in Tallahassee may not be preparing properly because of the belief that the city is relatively safe. The past weak hits to the area, including last week’s Tropical Storm Alberto, “have lulled us into a false sense of security,” she said.

Florida A&M University professor Michael Abrams recently conducted a study with his graduate students and a preparedness grant research committee that found a large number of Tallahassee residents don’t have hurricane preparedness plans and over 50 percent believe Leon County is unprepared for a major storm. Kenya Blocker, 21, has become more lax in her hurricane preparedness since moving to Tallahassee from Key West, which is completely surrounded by water and more vulnerable to storms.

Although she realizes the need for Tallahassee residents to plan, she said it’s hard as a student to be as prepared as her family money wise. Back home, Blocker, a senior graphic communication student at Florida A&M University, said her family always had plenty of water and food, and boarded up the house for most storms. But residents of cities like Key West have to take it more seriously, she said, because they have more reason to be prepared.

A dilemma for media and government is how to properly inform residents of the danger of storms without overplaying each situation. Blocker said residents should be informed repeatedly because if not people would say, “no one told us” in retrospect. Herndon used Taylor County’s experience during Alberto as an example of what could have been a devastating situation. The coastal county called for mandatory evacuations, but the majority of residents stayed home, and very few went to the emergency shelter or boarded the buses made available to leave the area. Many state officials have labeled Alberto as a preparation for the rest of the season that has been predicted to be above average by the NOAA.

Following the 2005 hurricane season that was the most active in history, Gov. Bush said government can only do so much in the already damaged state, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

Tallahassee residents need to be prepared to be on their own for at least 72 hours, said Robby Powers, the emergency management coordinator of the Leon County Division of Emergency Management.

FEMA representatives have labeled Florida one of the most prepared states in the nation Herndon said. But “no city can handle a Katrina alone,” continued Herndon, who recently created an emergency educational program for public schools in Leon County.

When storms come, Herndon said the government forms task forces with the police department, fire department and the Emergency Operations Center to plan shelter, clear roads and respond to the community.

But problems still exist statewide and in Tallahassee. Abrams said the amount of property and number of residents in the city has greatly increased since Tropical Storm Kate in 1985, the last storm to cause great damage and flooding. More is at stake now, Abrams said.

An increase in the amount of underground utilities could prevent problems, he said, because it doesn’t take a category one storm to turn off electricity.

In Abram’s study he proposed that Leon County should create a new media plan to make all residents aware of emergency procedures in the community.

Abrams also believes the emergency management offices should have a more visible location than the Leon County Jail building, which he says is intimidating to visitors.

Powers said the department is currently working to apply for a grant to enhance their operations and eventually have a new facility.