Trio of storms threaten U.S.

BY SUSAN KIM | Miami, FL | August 26, 1999

The storm nearest the U.S. mainland, Dennis, is gaining strength in the Atlantic, prompting a hurricane

watch that has been issued for the central and northwestern Bahamas. Forecasters say Dennis could affect

the southeastern United States this weekend.

Meanwhile, tropical storms Emily and Cindy are also churning the Atlantic waters, with Cindy moving

west-northwest over the Atlantic after briefly gaining hurricane strength over the weekend before losing

intensity. Emily could reach hurricane force by Friday, surprising forecasters who hadn't thought it was

even a tropical depression until Tuesday evening.

Emily is sustaining 45-mph winds with little change and still moving north-northwest. To be classified as a

hurricane, a storm must sustain winds of more than 74 mph.

If Emily combines with Cindy -- a possibility suggested by some forecasters -- the storm won't necessarily

be twice as powerful. Cindy is forecast to swing gradually north and stay over the open ocean. Though it

poses no immediate threat to land, conditions are still favorable for it to strengthen.

The storm trio -- along with Tropical Storm Bret's recent deluge in Texas -- has emergency officials,

faith-based and community organizations, and neighbors talking about the best ways to get ready for a

hurricane. Besides the personal planning tips -- boarding up windows, securing important documents,

having some extra food and water on hand -- organizations are also checking their own communication

lines and supplies.

Church World Service, for example, has a hurricane task force that spans the hurricane-prone regions of

the country. "We try to look at, state-by-state, how we are in terms of manpower and resources," said Bob

Arnold, associate director of Church World Service. "Then, after a hurricane we're better prepared to find

out what condition churches are in, get them to discuss their needs, and guide them during the recovery


Most states -- especially those that have weathered hurricanes before -- have interfaith response groups in

place that coordinate with state and federal emergency management officials, the American Red Cross,

and other organizations active during a disaster.

But, Arnold acknowledged, there are some situations for which the U.S. just isn't ready. "If a hurricane

makes landfall in Atlantic City or New York City, we'd be in big trouble," he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross -- along with a many hurricane tracking

sites and weather bureaus -- publish preparation tips for people threatened by hurricanes. They advise

people to stay home unless they receive an evacuation notice -- which is usually issued first for people in

mobile homes and those with homes right next to the ocean.

"People don't realize that, a lot of times, they're just as safe at home as they would be in a shelter," said

Mary Jones, community education specialist for the Martin County Red Cross in Florida.

But Dan Bramer, who helped develop a comprehensive hurricane informational website through the

University of Illinois, said that the biggest preparedness problem on the East Coast is people's lack of belief

in forecasters. "It is very difficult to predict accurately the track of a hurricane, and forecasters can be

wrong," he acknowledged. "However, many translate this into 'always wrong,' when that is not the case."

People who don't believe the forecast often wait too long to evacuate, he said. "It takes a considerable

amount of time to evacuate a well-populated area -- even as much as 24-36 hours. If people wait too long,

they may be forced to stay in their homes, and if that's the case, they may wait too long to purchase any

last-minute supplies they need."

Since wind-speed is an oft-reported statistic, people usually associate hurricane damage -- and deaths --

with high winds. But, Bramer said, "flash flooding claims a good percentage of lives lost in hurricanes, as

well as tornadoes hidden within the rainbands and eyewall."

Hurricane preparation experts also recommend making an inventory list of items in your home, putting

insurance papers, birth and marriage certificates, house titles, and other important documents in a safety

deposit box, and making plans for pets, which most shelters won't allow.

Besides preparing the community, response leaders also consider the 'lessons learned' after responding to

other hurricanes. Last year, Hurricane Georges destroyed thousands of homes in Puerto Rico, and

recovery there is still progressing. "I think the lesson in Puerto Rico was that we need to use concrete for

construction," said Shirley Norman, a disaster response facilitator for Church World Service who helped

lead recovery efforts there.

The largest hurricane last season was Mitch. The storm claimed thousands of lives and homes, and

devastated Central America, where recovery efforts are still underway. Of the hurricane-prone countries,

the U.S. has the lowest hurricane-related mortality rate.

Hurricanes can live for as much as two to three weeks. They usually start as a cluster of thunderstorms

over tropical ocean waters, then become a tropical depression, which can reach the next stage, a tropical

storm, in as little as half a day.

In turn, a tropical storm can intensify into a hurricane in as little as 12 hours. But atmospheric and oceanic

conditions play a major role, since hurricanes weaken rapidly when they travel over land or colder ocean


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