The East and Gulf Coasts are due for a major natural disaster, according to Neil Frank, the nation's chief hurricane forecaster.
Developers, home buyers and local governments have all but ignored the possibility of killer storms. The development of some dangerous barrier islands means that "we are more vulnerable to the hurricane than we have ever been in our history," said Frank, director of the National Hurricane Center.
"Poor building codes, out-of-date evacuation plans and overdevelopment are setting the stage for a major disaster," Frank told the Senate subcommittee on environmental pollution recently.
People have a feeling of security because the country has not suffered a killer hurricane in a populated area in about 30 years, Frank said. He said he believes that federal disaster aid should not be offered to those who build knowing that their apartments or houses are in danger of being wiped away.
Some examples of the danger he cited:
The worst single disaster in American history was a hurricane that hit Galveston Island on the Texas coast and killed 6,000 people in one swipe across the island at the turn of the century.
Now, where those 6,000 were, tens of thousands of people live during the hurricane season. At the spot where the 6,000 were killed, a 17-foot seawall was built to protect the town of Galveston. The seawall has protected the city, but recently a developer put up a condominium on a sandbar in front of the seawall, and more are scheduled to be built, Frank said.
In 1938 a hurricane hit West Hampton Beach on Long Island. "There were 179 homes on the barrier island before the storm," Frank said. "Only 26 remained after the storm. I visited Hampton Beach in 1979 and counted 900 homes in that same area."
In 1954, there were 357 homes on a barrier island on the North Carolina coast, near Wilmington, called Long Beach Island. After Hurricane Hazel only five remained. Now, there are 2,000 homes on the same spot, Frank said.
Other better known and dangerous areas are Hilton Head, Seabrook and Kiawah Islands off the South Carolina coast. Those islands were hit by the center of a storm in 1893 and wiped clean. About 2,000 died.
Frank said there are few city evacuation plans and in every case where the problem has been studied it was found that people could not be evacuated in time. The National Hurricane Center can give about 12 hours of warning of a severe hurricane.
"There are 70,000 people in the Florida Keys today and their escape route is a narrow two-lane road with 50 bridges . . . . It would take 20 hours to evacuate," Frank said. That estimate does not take into account what would happen if there was an accident blocking the one escape route.
"Recent comprehensive evacuation studies for the area around Fort Myers, Fla., show it will take between 20 and 30 hours to evacuate . . . for Tampa Bay and Galveston Bay there would be evacuation times in excess of 20 hours."
The danger in a hurricane, contrary to the popular idea, is not so much from wind and rain, but from "storm surge." Nine of 10 people who die in a hurricane drown in the storm surge, Frank said.
The winds of the hurricane push up a great dome of water before it, perhaps 50 miles long. The rising water does not slam in like a tidal wave, but instead rises like a quick tide to flood coastal areas, sometimes reaching 20 to 25 feet above sea level. On top of this are powerful five-foot waves.
Since barrier islands are most often only about five feet or so above sea level, a major hurricane's storm surge can put an island under 10 to 20 feet of rushing water plus the five-foot waves. Few structures can survive it, Frank said, and no building code is written to take it into account.
Frank said that between 1900 and 1974 a total of 126 hurricanes struck land on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Of those, 52 were "major storms" with winds above 110 mph and a storm surge often over 10 feet.
In the 20 to 30 years since any of these hurricanes hit a heavily populated island, the barrier islands' populations have "skyrocketed," he said, making the next one to strike a populated island likely to be the nation's single worst disaster.