Coastal counties like Manatee and hurricanes -- be wary of storm surge

May 29, 2013 

Hurricane season is upon us once again starting Saturday, this year with a frightening twist delivered by Superstorm Sandy. Until now, many people assumed wind would be the devastating and deadly impact of a powerful tropical storm.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left notice that giant walls of water rushing ashore obliterate communities. In New Orleans, 1,500 people died one way or another because of storm surge.

In Mississippi, one high-rise apartment building disappeared with nothing left but a concrete foundation. Nature's catastrophic force should be well remembered.

But only now, in the wake of last season's storms, have weather forecasters put surge on their radar for public warning. This should have occurred long ago.

With Katrina -- which reached Category 5 status on Aug. 28, 2005, on a peak strength of 175 mph winds -- waters rushed up to 12 miles inland. By the time she crashed into Mississippi, she'd been downgraded to a Category 3 with 120 mph sustained winds, but the storm still pushed massive waves deep into the state.

Imagine that in Manatee County.

We should. And we should take precautions.

Yes, every hurricane season we hear the National Hurricane Center warnings to guard against lackadaisical attitudes about storms and prepare both evacuation and survival plans. We Floridians tend to discount those pleas for intelligence. And that they are.

This year, National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb brought storm surge, heavy rains and flooding to center stage at the annual Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale. As well he should.

He cited not just Sandy but Debby and Issac from last year as evidence of that threat.

Our emergency management system is going to improve surge forecasts and warnings about flooding miles from shore.

Remember how Tropical Storm Debby's heavy rains caused river flooding in northern and central Florida? And inundated Palma Sola Causeway's beach? And how about Hurricane Issac swamping a wide swath of the Gulf Coast? And how Sandy destroyed so much of New Jersey and New York with massive waves and heavy inland rains?

Sandy taught a lesson that will no longer be forgotten -- that a severe storm continues to a major threat well beyond official status as a hurricane.

This season, the National Hurricane Center will issue warnings and advisories beyond a storm's landfall as long as a threat exists to people and property -- regardless of hurricane rating.

Plus, new graphics should help display the potential surge impact zones -- an additional aid to residents who should evacuate, especially those who ignore local emergency management officials.

Since Hurricane Wilma slammed the southern part of Florida in 2005 and caused billions in damage, the Sunshine State has escaped disaster.

How much longer can we count on our good luck? Odds are that's not a gamble to take with the lives of family and friends at stake.

At the bare minimum, have an evacuation plan in mind and a supply list to purchase days ahead of a storm threat. Just for peace of mind.

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