• U.S.

A Very Close Call

5 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

For a day or two last week, it really looked as though the Big One were finally here. Experts had been warning for years about the imminent arrival of Hurricane X, the killer storm that the law of averages dictates must sooner or later strike the coastal U.S., making such legendary monsters as Andrew, Hugo and Camille seem like mere squalls.

And here came Floyd. It was huge, spanning an astonishing 600 miles. It was intensely powerful, with sustained winds of nearly 155 m.p.h.–a Category 4 hurricane, only one step below the most destructive designation on the charts. Most significant of all, it was bearing down on the Atlantic coastline, putting millions of people and billions of dollars’ worth of property directly in harm’s way.

Fearing the worst, officials ordered some 3 million residents to leave the shoreline in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. The largest such evacuation in the nation’s history, it created a media frenzy and massive traffic jams, including a backup on Florida’s Interstate 10 that stretched 200 miles. Walt Disney World, near Orlando, failed to open for the first time in its history. At the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, only a skeleton crew of volunteers was left behind to watch over launch pads and hangared space shuttles, each worth a couple of billion dollars.

A last-minute northward jog by Floyd spared Florida a direct hit, and the hurricane that finally came ashore at Cape Fear, in North Carolina, was far less powerful than the Floyd of just a day earlier. Still, the storm, skirting the coast all the way to Massachusetts, dumped punishing rains from Florida to Maine and triggered widespread flooding. It left at least 41 dead; thousands more had to be rescued from roofs and trees where they had been stranded by rising waters. But that was nothing compared with the havoc that authorities had feared. Floyd came on like a lion but ended up as a–well, not a lamb, exactly. Call it a sheep on steroids with a very bad attitude.

Though Floyd wasn’t Hurricane X, the long-awaited Big One is inevitable. Meteorologists believe that we’re coming out of a 30-year period of relatively mild hurricanes (see accompanying story). Worse still, the increase in hurricane activity will threaten a coastline that has been experiencing a population explosion of remarkable proportions. More than 139 million people now live in hurricane-vulnerable coastal areas of the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That number is expected to swell as aging baby boomers finish sending their kids to college and start looking to buy vacation or retirement homes. Explains Orrin Pilkey, professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University: “Here’s a chance to live out life in the place where you had the best time of your life. With people who come to the beach and look for property, it’s almost as if they’re in heat.”

The rush to the beach started years ago. As far back as the 1970s, Florida officials realized that the state’s environmentally sensitive barrier islands, which protect the mainland from the force of incoming storms, were becoming overbuilt. But when officials tried to put the brakes on development, they came up against some hard political realities. The fat revenue stream from condo towers, resorts and convention hotels made it very difficult to elect antigrowth politicians. Hurricanes were acknowledged to be a danger. But, says Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society, “instead of restrictions, you got engineering standards. And from that point on, there really wasn’t any limit on growth.”

While most of the new construction was strong enough to avoid total destruction by a hurricane, occupants would need to get off the islands in advance of a major storm. And though four-lane causeways are being built to replace the two-lane drawbridges connecting beach to mainland, it is hardly enough. In Daytona Beach, Fla., where Floyd’s near miss still did serious property damage, many people ignored evacuation calls. “Why leave?” says beach resident Jim Samuels. “You can’t get to Orlando from here even when there’s a good basketball game.”

The situation in Florida is duplicated on barrier islands up and down the Atlantic Coast. When it’s time to evacuate, it doesn’t really matter where on these narrow strips of land you live–you’re stuck on the same stretch of highway. Some officials now believe that the coastal states may have to toughen their construction standards even more, forcing builders to install hardened bunkers, like aboveground bomb shelters, so residents can stay during a hurricane and take their chances.

Despite the dangers, despite rising insurance premiums, despite the fact that hurricanes roar through every few years, people continue to flock to the seaside. Usually affluent and well educated, says Richard Kadesch, a real estate broker on Hilton Head Island, S.C., “they have a good understanding of what they’re getting into.” And they’re snatching up everything in sight.

Patrick Taylor knows that first-hand. On Sunset Beach in North Carolina, he’s selling a half-acre of marsh three-quarters of a mile from the beach. It has no amenities–no water or sewage. Taylor is not even sure what can be built on it. To reach an inlet, you’d have to build a long pier to cross the marsh. He’s asking $20,000 for it, and even as Hurricane Floyd approached last week, Taylor was fielding calls from prospective buyers who had read his classified ad in out-of-state newspapers. “They know a good deal when they see it,” he says.

–Reported by Brad Liston/Daytona Beach, Melissa August and Delphine Matthieussent/Washington and Timothy Roche/Atlanta

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