As fictional Hurricane Zeke lashed the Eastern Shore last week with its 145-mph winds, 75 disaster management experts from three states gathered in a hurricane "war room."
Computer screens projected large images overhead of massive traffic congestion as people streamed inland. The storm's violent path from Antigua, across Puerto Rico and up the Atlantic coast was tracked on another screen. Sirens sounded, and newscasters made dire predictions.
The team quickly identified dozens of alternative escape routes and started rerouting traffic. Police crossed state borders to help out. Calamity was avoided.
Zeke existed only on computer screens in Smyrna, Del., and in the minds of these experts, but the simulation was a significant step forward in Maryland's preparations for natural disaster, experts said. Forecasters say this will be a busy summer for storms on the Atlantic coast. It has been 44 years since a hurricane, Connie, hit Maryland. Most residents have not lived through one, so they do not fear the potential devastation, experts said.
The Zeke simulation was the state's latest effort to understand how to deal with disaster if it strikes. The participating officials and experts from Delaware, Maryland and Virginia reacted as if state borders did not exist. Police were shared. Residents of one state were evacuated to another.
"This is a regional issue. Hurricanes don't stop at our borders," said Clay Stamp, who has been emergency management director for Ocean City, Md., for 23 years and has seen his share of dangerous storms. "It was the first time in one room you had all the Delmarva hurricane players." During an actual storm, these officials would not gather. Instead, they would dial a secret telephone number--only 60 people have access to it--where a regional disaster planning conference call would take place regularly throughout the storm. A designated moderator would run the meetings. The same decisions made during the Zeke exercise would be made more quickly over the phone.
"The communications thing is the really big development to come out of this," said David McMillion, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
The urgency of these preparations is in stark contrast to the casualness with which most Marylanders view hurricanes. "The fact that it is not hit frequently may make Maryland even more vulnerable," said Barbara Watson, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington office.
She cites Hurricane Agnes, which was a tropical storm when it hit Maryland in 1972 and caused $55 million in damages and 21 deaths. It even forced the evacuation of 10,000 people in landlocked Montgomery County.
"It was a pretty weak storm, and we use it as a lesson that it doesn't have to be a full-fledged hurricane to be a disaster," she said.
Hurricane Connie in 1955 was the only hurricane of the century to travel straight up the Chesapeake Bay into Maryland, dumping 10 inches of rain on Baltimore, killing 14 people in a boating accident and causing $2.5 million in damage. But numerous hurricanes have given state officials pause in recent years. "After brushes with Hurricane Bonnie last year, Hurricanes Bertha and Fran in 1996 and close calls with Hurricane Felix in 1995, Hurricane Gordon in 1994 and Hurricane Emily in 1993, Marylanders should be more aware of the hurricane threat and be prepared," McMillion said.
Ocean City has learned through rough experience. In 1985, the entire peninsula was evacuated during Hurricane Gloria. In 1993, Hurricane Emily triggered evacuation preparations before heading out to sea. Ocean City is, in many ways, a hurricane disaster waiting to happen, experts said. The permanent population, less likely to evacuate, is growing, as are the numbers of vacationers heading there every summer. There is only one direct road inland, Route 50.
"If a hurricane is coming, we have to evacuate and evacuate early," said Stamp, Ocean City's hurricane expert.
The "cry wolf" syndrome has become a problem for planners such as Stamp. They issue dire warnings to assure that residents take storm threats seriously. Media outlets intensify the warnings. But most of the time, the storms pass or change course. "Only for one of the 10 will the warning be necessary, but we have no choice. We have to assume the worst," Stamp said.
And if someone ignores warnings and finds themselves in the midst of a hurricane? "Get in a brick building, go to the second floor, avoid windows," he said. "And keep your fingers crossed."