Lack of hurricane experience could lead to complacency in preparedness

MANATEE -- Depending on in which evacuation zone they live in, studies report that many residents in the Tampa Bay area would stay in their homes if a Category 1 hurricane came ashore.

This is the thinking that emergency management officials try to combat every year, and this year with the hurricane season starting today they have an added obstacle to overcome -- complacency.

With Hurricane Wilma in 2005 the last storm to make landfall in Florida, many people are simply not prepared.

"This is a record length of time Florida has gone without being hit," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Wilma was a Category 3 hurricane with 125-mph sustained winds when it came ashore near Naples on Oct. 24, 2005.

The storm delivered high winds and dumped heavy rain in Manatee County. Since then, the Tampa Bay area has experienced only glancing blows of the few storms that entered the Gulf of Mexico.

The last time Manatee County had a direct hit was in October 1921.

Today, a direct hit coming from the southwest would be devastating, Feltgen said.

"There were a lot fewer people living on the Pinellas peninsula and in Tam

pa back then," he said. "And there were a lot fewer hard structures.

"It's going to happen, and the only thing you can do is prepare for it," Feltgen warned. "You don't want to be complacent."

There are people who have moved to the area who have never experienced a tropical storm or hurricane, and making them aware of the potential dangers has become a priority for emergency management agencies.

"The big thing to overcome complacency is education," said Greg Bacon, an emergency management officer with Manatee County Emergency Management Division of the Public Safety Department.

"We put information on the website (www.mymanatee.org), give presentations to organizations and just try to keep it in front of people," Bacon said. "Just because we haven't been hit doesn't mean we can't be hit. It's not if, but when."

He said sometimes it is difficult to convey the power of these storms, noting that the 1921 hurricane created Longboat Pass and Midnight Pass.

"We're doing all we can to get people prepared," Bacon said.

Feltgen agreed and said the National Weather Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency will kick off National Hurricane Preparedness Week on Monday with the "Be a Force of Nature" program.

The program "asks families, communities and businesses to be a force of nature by knowing their risk, taking action and being an example," according to a news release.

"It's a matter of personal responsibility," Feltgen said. "People have to develop individual plans and they need to do it now, because when the hurricane comes, odds are you're not going to make the right decisions."

The Be a Force of Nature campaign encourages people to take appropriate steps before, during and after extreme weather events.

It also encourages people to be an inspiration for others to do the same.

Holmes Beach Police Department Lt. Dale Stephenson said people forgetting about the dangers of riding out storms could be a problem, but he has noticed over the years that many island residents are prepared.

"With the last couple of storms that have brushed by," Stephenson said, "when we called for volunteer evacuation, many people have already left.

"I think this is due to the media coverage of Katrina (in 2005) and other storms," he said. "We have really educated the people and they are more aware of what can happen."

On the other hand, the police lieutenant said, the people who do stay are not doing what they have to do, such as putting together their personal disaster kits.

"Now is time to do that," Stephenson said.

He blames the reluctance of some to evacuate on their experience with Hurricane Charley in 2004 when they were told it was coming to Manatee County and they left for Orlando.

The Category 4 hurricane veered east, making landfall in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, tearing a path through Arcadia and the Orlando-Kissimmee area. Many evacuees from Holmes Beach were stranded.

Regardless of an individual's past experience, they should be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

"It doesn't matter where you live," Feltgen said. "Anywhere along the U.S. coastline is vulnerable."