August 02, 2006

Deadly Hurricanes Headed Our Way

It will never happen here.

Those fateful words signaled disaster for scores of Hurricane Katrina victims who failed to heed warnings and evacuate before last year's hurricane descended upon ill-prepared communities, leaving a trail of devastation and tears in its wake.

The question remains: Is the East End next? And, should a hurricane hit hard, are residents prepared?

The bottom line, say experts, is yes, the threat is real — it's only a matter of time before a Category 3 hurricane could slam the East End, leveling homes and leaving scores of residents displaced and without power for days or even weeks.

But, say officials, the best defense against disaster is preparation.

To that end, the Southampton Town Board held a discussion at its work session on Friday to introduce the brand-new, 33-page Official Town of Southampton 2006 Hurricane Survival Guide, slated to be mailed out to residents next Wednesday.

The guide aims to educate residents on how to prepare for a hurricane as well as how the community can do its part to take responsibility for people's survival in the event of natural disaster.

"Preparation is everyone's responsibility," said Southampton Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski. "There is no way government can take care of everyone in the event of an emergency — this is a cooperative effort."

Graboski spearheaded the three-month effort to coordinate the guide, divided into color coded-sections geared toward educating residents on what to do before the storm, during landfall, and after the storm, as well as providing other pertinent information.

At Friday's work session, representatives from various Town departments convened for a discussion with Michael Wyllie, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Upton, regarding the risks to East End residents and how to mitigate the impacts of disaster by planning ahead.

"Public education is crucial," said Graboski.

Graboski said other communities who've borne the brunt of hurricanes past in areas such as Florida and North Carolina have been willing to share information and data.

According to Wyllie, hurricane season, which begins on June 1 and runs through November 30, could bring a hurricane to the East End this year and the recent heat wave and higher water temperatures leave the East End susceptible to storms heading to the area.

Not since Hurricane Gloria in 1988 has the East End felt the effects of Nature's wrath, said Wylile, reminding that during that storm, residents lost power for over a week. Long-time residents remember the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, a Category 3 Hurricane that caused "total destruction" in Westhampton Beach, said Wyllie.

Because the area has seen no major hurricane action in recent years, the East End sports a proliferation of trees — a deadly scenario should a Category 3 send them and power lines crashing to the ground. Should that happen, predicted Wyllie, "We're going to have electric down for probably over a month."

And, he added, residents should acknowledge the very real possibility and arm themselves with enough food, water and prescription medications to sustain themselves for at least three to five days without power.

Wyllie said SLOSH (Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes) Models were used to determine how the area would be affected by a hurricane; beach erosion, he maintained, would be severe, with protective dunes diminished.

In a recent speech in Southampton, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, the Director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University said a high pressure system that had settled in over Bermuda in the past three years has moved out, allowing hurricanes a clear path to the northeast coast.

With all the warning signs in place, elected officials have stepped up to ensure public safety. Cheryl Kraft, Southampton Town Public Safety Administrator, asked the business community to shoulder some of the burden for the community at large.

And, although the new guide lists area evacuation sites, Kraft emphasized not everyone needs to relocate and, often, individuals are safer in their homes — and off the roads. She pointed out that the public cannot expect normalcy immediately after a hurricane and should realize the town is striving towards health and safety of residents before convenience.

Kraft added that because of a limited number of town responders — "We're not going to be on your doorstep, helping you" — community members need to reach out to one another.

In addition, Kraft said the town is in the process of signing memorandums of agreement with other municipalities, such as the Village of East Hampton, to help one another in a wider, far-reaching effort.

Pets are another consideration. Donald Bambrick suggested a plan be put in place for pets as shelters do not allow animals. Since they cannot be left home alone, Bambrick said pet owners should consider leaving them with relatives or boarding them. A free Pet Emergency Preparedness seminar offering rabies vaccinations and microchip identification at a reduced rate of $15.00 will be held on Sunday at the Southampton Town Animal Shelter in Hampton Bays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Also addressed are the special needs of seniors, said William Jones, Director of Human Services, with a special needs center set up at the Hampton Bays Nutrition Center site.

Similar efforts are taking place on the North Fork, with Greenport Village Trustee Ben Burns coordinating a special needs assessment with the Town of Southold.

Lt. Robert Iberger of the Southampton Town Police and Highway Superintendent William Masterson agreed that in the event of a storm, residents should stay inside: "We don't have time for curiosity seekers," said Masterson.

Southampton Town General Services Building Project Coordinator Walter Bundy, said by next year, FEMA will have finished remapping Suffolk County flood zones to reflect current topography. "Some of the data is antiquated," he said. And even though no major hurricanes have hit the East End, Bundy pointed out that in the past 10 years, the area has seen $18 million in residential and commercial damage caused by storms, leading the state in insurance claims at 6% of all New York claims.

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