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Texans Guard Against Hurricanes

Hurricane season began on June 1. It's been three years since a hurricane made landfall on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. And now emergency officials are worried that people may be forgetting how dangerous one of these storms can be. Many states are trying to educate the public about hurricane preparedness. The city of Galveston sits on a barrier island off the Texas coast. It's been repeatedly hit by killer storms including the nation's deadliest that killed an estimated 6,000 people back in 1900. But the city hasn't been struck by a hurricane in 19 years. Officials are trying to get people to see that their luck may not hold out much longer.

On a Thursday night in Galveston about a hundred senior citizens are gathered to hear about hurricanes. The speaker is Galveston Emergency Management Coordinator Eliot Jennings. "Yes, it is hurricane season and the one thing that we definitely know here in Galveston is that it's not a question of if a hurricane will come it's only a question of when."

Mr. Jennings has been traveling around the area telling audiences what they should be doing to prepare for a hurricane. Stock up on supplies such as canned goods, water and medication, he urges them. And think about where to go in case of an evacuation. But he worries that some people aren't getting the message. "My biggest challenge is overcoming complacency."

Galveston hasn't been hit by a hurricane since 1983. That's when Alicia swept through and killed 21 people. What's more, Mr. Jennings says many new residents have never experienced a hurricane before. "I think there's a lot of people that understand the importance of being prepared for hurricanes but getting them to take action on what they know is a big challenge."

Then there are people who refuse to evacuate. Back at the senior citizens' meeting, Richard Daniels waits for Mr. Jennings to give his talk. The retired electronics engineer says he's stocked up with a week's worth of food and supplies because he's decided to stay home if a hurricane came this way. "I don't have a place to go," says Mr. Daniels. "And trying to get off of the island by the time they tell you to evacuate is going to be an absolute mess."

Emergency officials strongly encourage people to evacuate as soon as they give the word. They say that's the best way to avoid traffic snarls. Gridlock and clogged highways are a nightmare shared by emergency officials throughout the hurricane belt from Texas, around the Gulf of Mexico, and on up the Atlantic Coast. For example, in the Galveston area, a major evacuation would send 750,000 people scrambling up the one highway that leads inland towards Houston. "A lot of people just don't grasp the importance of the timeframe it takes to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people out of the danger area," says Ken Burris, the southeastern Regional Director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA.

Mr. Burris says officials learned a lot in 1999 when hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina. Residents from Florida to Delaware were told to evacuate. Traffic bottlenecks choked the roadways. He says part of the problem was that states weren't communicating effectively with each other. "A lot of times a state will come up with an evacuation plan that sends their residents into another state and never coordinate with the second state as to how that's going to happen."

Mr. Burris says he believes the next evacuation will go more smoothly. Cameras have been installed on highways in major east coast cities so emergency officials can monitor traffic. Also, FEMA has set up a hurricane evacuation liaison team. Team members will inform local emergency officials about what's going on outside of their areas. "It takes advantage of some new technology that provides a real-time web-based look at what's going on in our interstate highways so that we can relay that information out," Mr. Burris says.

In the meantime, officials here in Galveston believe their education efforts are helping. Many residents say they've been to a hurricane preparedness meeting and are taking steps to get ready.