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Three years later, Wilma’s fury still impacting Immokalee, Naples Daily News, 10/24/08

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I hope last month’s story and the series of recommendations that follow highlight actionable lessons about preparing for and recovering from coastal storms.

Understanding the realities of living on the coast. People are drawn to the coast and will continue to live there. Therefore, what can we do to help coastal residents be better prepared? First, people must recognize that living on the coast has inherent risk and they should recognize this reality and plan accordingly.

Consider taking action to reduce the vulnerability of your home to hurricanes. While the bay house had hurricane shutters and a back up generator, it was built prior to the adoption of building codes or a Local Flood Ordinance. Homes built along our street after the Town of Shoreacres joined the National Flood Insurance Program were elevated approximately 8 feet higher than those that pre-dated this local requirement.

If your home is located in an area prone to storm surge, consider elevating it to at least the height required in your community’s Local Flood Damage Prevention Ordinance. Following federally-declared disasters, funds are available to pay for some or all of these costs. Check with your local floodplain administrator, or FEMA representative ( or to see if you qualify for this type of assistance

Work with your community to protect natural systems like wetlands, coastlines and barrier islands that provide a protective buffer against the impacts of hurricanes. When the bay house was built, there was approximately 100 yards between the shoreline and the house. A long history of coastal erosion and subsidence has taken their toll. Today there is approximately 50 feet between the Galveston Bay and the front door.

Coastal erosion is a natural process which has been eating away at the shoreline over time. In the Galveston Bay Area, this process has been exacerbated by subsidence. Subsidence occurs when large volumes of groundwater are pumped out of subsurface reservoirs, causing the areas heavy clay soils to compact and sink. While the area no longer relies on groundwater, the irreparable damage was done. With the onset of climate change and sea level rise, the flood threat will only increase over time.

Educate people about the importance of evacuation. This is becoming increasingly important as our population ages and more retirees are moving to coastal areas. Those that have not grown up in areas prone to coastal storms are not fully aware of their damaging effects and the need to evacuate flood-prone areas.

Work with existing community groups or help establish a neighborhood-based organization capable of assisting the elderly prepare for hurricanes. Each of the issues described present great challenges once the storm passes. Non-profits and community and faith-based organizations are well suited to assist others as they are often trusted by members of the community and can more effectively reach out to the elderly and those who are often most vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes and other disasters.

Gavin Smith, Ph.D.
Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

How To, Interview

The Atakapa-Ishak people are a Native American tribe settled in the Grand Bayou region of Louisiana. The tribe’s core values are tradition and family, which helped them avoid the terrible toll of Hurricane Katrina that devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. Living in the isolated Plaquemines Parish, tribe member Rosina Phillippe believes her people have been able to survive in a hurricane-prone area because of their adherence to putting life first; practicing safe harbor mooring; and allowing marshes to buffer the effects of a storm surge.

”We are a part of the coastal community. We know how to live there, how to survive there,” says Rosina. “We are an integral part of the environment, and we remain there to this day.”

The Ishaks are mindful that preserving life is a priority and that material possessions, unlike people, can be replaced. When they were warned that Hurricane Katrina would make landfall, they worked together to organize the village and ensure everyone’s safety. “It is a misconception that our people do not evacuate when hurricanes come on land,” says Rosina. “We work as a community to pack up and move to our boats.”

When a severe storm approaches their village, the Ishak people go from home to home to ensure that every member of their community moves to the harbor and boards the fishing boats. As part of their strategy, they secure their boats in the center of the narrow canal with several lines tied to trees and pilings on shore (called cross-tying) to ensure a safe mooring. Rosina and her people survived Hurricane Katrina by riding out the storm in their boats.

The structures in their village, however, did not survive the storm. Three years after the hurricane, Rosina says that not one building has been rebuilt. “This has to do with the Ishak community being considered ‘at risk.’”

Any community built outside of the levees is considered to be an at-risk community. As part of the Road Home program, managed by ICF International, communities at risk have to undergo an extensive building review, which includes height and architectural mandates and floor board inspections. The Road Home program gave this classification to the Ishak village despite their demonstrated ability to protect themselves against severe storms throughout history. The Ishak community has never suffered a casualty from a hurricane-related event.

Without federally mandated policies, the Ishak people wouldn’t be eligible for any federal funds to help rebuild their community. “There is still so much left to be done,” says Rosina. “The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is focused on other regions of the Gulf Coast, while here work remains unfinished.”

Rosina is concerned that the post-Katrina rebuilding process is a repeat of past mistakes. The Louisiana authorities continue to create deeper levees and cut more canals, while marsh land, the best defense against severe storms and residual flooding, remains underutilized and unprotected.

Rosina also feels her people are a marginalized community and that it is important to consider how a culture lives and works before the government sends out blanket mandates. “It is important to work with the community and the people before deciding which communities are beyond repair,” she says. “Our culture values life over property. Our traditions have been working for hundreds of years.”


From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – A time lapse satellite video of the 2008 hurricane season. Click play below to view the video.

How To, Interview

Both born and raised in Grenada, Michelle and Andrew Bierzynski share mixed lineage that probably represents just about every nationality and race of people to come to Grenadines over the past five generations, including African, Indian, and Polish.

Today they stand on the deck of their temporary home, a duplex that they used to rent out. Higher on the hill are the ravaged remains of their former home, known as the Old Fort, where a famous Grenadian battle was fought more than 200 years ago.

“The shops were busy with people shopping for supplies on the day before Ivan struck, but most of us were still in denial. That was me actually; I was worried about having to bring it all back to the store,” says Michelle wistfully.

“There was no rain before-just a slight overcast. We were waiting for the storm, but we were mostly watching TV. Whenever a commercial came on, we turned to the weather channel. Our 12-year-old, Alena, had taken sandwiches, her hamster, and a medical kit downstairs to our basement level-partially as a game to play, I’m sure, but also because she knew that if the storm got bad, we’d need supplies. Mom was overshopping, and Dad was securing the business, so it was reasonable for the child to expect that we might miss one meal in the kitchen, eh?”

“The television began blinking, “Andrew picks up where Michelle left off. “That was the first indicator, and after a while, Michelle went to check the phones and they were for naught. The rain came-typical storm stuff. I was standing in our living room near the terrace when I when I heard this mass of sound-not like the usual sounds of a storm but a roar. We went outside to the railing where we could see the harbor. Near the beach, the trees…” He breaks off, searching for words to describe the indescribable.

Michelle begins again. “Alena and I grabbed bed linens and ran into the basement bathroom. Andrew was still on the terrace, mesmerized by the site of the storm blowing all around us. I never curse my husband, but when I looked at him standing there with this horror blowing all around us, surely about to take him away. I screamed like a drill sergeant, ‘Andrew get your ass downstairs now!” she laughs. “He obeyed. That was three o’clock in the afternoon; we didn’t come up until six o’clock the next morning.”

Andrew explains, “At the fort, we have no shelter at all. We’re at the top of the hill, totally exposed. Once we got the first pass, the roof peeled off. After the pressure got to be too much, I dared to begin opening and closing the door; the pressure was against it, and I thought my arm will fall off. We were lucky that a piece of railing had lodged itself down the stairs and up against the doorjamb to block a lot of the major debris from getting at us.

“In a hurricane, the rain doesn’t fall perpendicularly: it’s horizontal. The force was 200 miles an hour (320 kilometers per hour). Our neighbors said they looked out and saw a mass of wind just crash into the fort. They saw this action and said “Oh, well they’re gone now.”

Michelle nods in agreement. “We could look through the potholes of the basement and see the houses just being torn apart,” she says. “The wind was so furious. I asked Andrew, ‘What do you see? And he said, ‘Michelle, people are dying out there.”

The hurricane brought furiously gyrating tornadoes, three of which hit the fort. Then in the middle of the storm came the false calm.

“At one point, it all just stopped,” Andrew says. “I said to my wife, ‘This is the eye’ but I needed to get out and check on my brother, who lived in the apartment attached to the garage. I went out, climbing over the debris. I had to get to him, but the mist was so thick, there was almost no visibility. I called to my brother, and after the fifth time, he answered. He had hidden under a cabinet in the apartment, which, thank goodness, proved sturdy enough.

“From 10 to 12:30 at night came more hurricane. High gusts of wind And it rained and rained; it just wouldn’t stop raining, I just kept bailing the place out. We were terrified and exhausted. And then, it just slowed. Then it stopped.”

“After the storm,” Andrew says, “the walls were covered in leaves like textured wallpaper. The force of the wind was so incredible that there were leaves inside the microwave, and the microwave was closed. The same for the car, which was in the carport; bits of green were all over the inside. Bullets of wood-little fingernail-size splintering-had penetrated the bumpers. Only an unbelievable force could drive splinters into those bumpers.”
“By the morning, the mist had cleared enough so that I could see the senior citizens’ home in the valley 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) below, which is where my mother lives,” Andrew continues. “I could tell that it was badly damaged. I told Michelle I had to go check on my mother, and I started walking. It was light gray and very still outside; trees, of course, were across all the roads. Debris was everywhere, and all the side roads were clogged. I got my bearings, and as I walked, I began to take it all in. Everyone I met was wide-eyed. No smiles. Some hellos, a few asking, ‘How did you make out?’ but because of where we’re positioned on the island, most people could see by then how we’d make out.”

Later, in the true aftermath of the storm, as the shock began to subside, fear, the desperation crept in.

Some people began looting. The roof had blown off the prison, leaving guards and inmates alike to seek shelter in the midst of the storm. There were reports of prisoners walking the streets post-Ivan who had not been “outside” in more than 20 years. “Many of them actually just went to check on their relatives, then went back to the prison and checked in,” Andrew says.

“The whole island looked like a nuclear bomb dropped on it. The hurricane takes slat from the ocean and sprays it everywhere. And then for 3 weeks to a month after the storm, we experienced blistering hot days. There was no ice, no electricity, no running water. The hillsides were gray with saltbake. Every tree in Grand Etang Forest is like a wooden grave marker now. Everybody got skinny; there was little food. We went on the Ivan diet. For weeks, people had that desperate look, you know?

“The residual effects of the stress became a major health factor. People were having severe problems-anxiety; the older folks kept dying. More died in the weeks after the hurricane than during it. Then, when Emily hit just 7 months later, everyone was on pins and needles. There was more stress waiting for Emily; people were so shell-shocked.”

That morning, however, the full meaning of what had happened had not yet set in.

“I have a friend and business associate who is down the hill a bit,” Andrew says. “He fared well, plus he had little ice, so I had a double whiskey with him. I needed it by then. I lefty him after a while and continued onto my mother’s.

“Eventually, as I walked, I met my oldest daughter, Nikita, and her husband. They were coming along the road in their four-wheel-drive vehicle, and she was, of course, in tears. She was the first to say, ‘We’re so lucky’. It was true.”

How To, Interview

Malcolm Suber addresses storm victims and volunteers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Love for his pets changed Warren Wilkerson’s life in August 2005. As Hurricane Katrina bore down on Pascagoula, Mississippi, Warren decided to ride out the storm at home because his pets were not welcome at any of the shelters in the area. With his two dogs and three cats in tow, Warren endured the storm in his attic, away from the water that crashed in downstairs.

The storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico reached 41 inches inside of his home and left behind 4 inches of mud and unknowable quantities of toxins. The wind took off a part of his roof that still has not been permanently fixed. Warren had also stored his food too low downstairs, and the toxins in the water rendered everything inedible. In the days before his rescue, the Church of Christ brought him and his animals the food he needed.After the water receded, Warren started the long process of putting his life back together. His sister, Peggy, and a friend, Dr. Kelly, brought him and the dogs to medical and veterinary centers, respectively, for care. None had any lasting health problems, but Warren admits that both he and the dogs had a hard time going back into the house after the storm.

“I had to pick them up and carry them in. I didn’t want to go into the house, either. I’m not a scared man, but going back into the house was extremely difficult. It became easier as I started removing debris and appliances. It became therapeutic,” Warren said.

With his health taken care of, Warren returned home and lived in a tent in his backyard while he contacted his insurance company and FEMA.

“I couldn’t get a hold of [my insurance company] for a week, then they had me to drive to Jackson where they gave me a check for $1,200 as a National Disaster Displacement payment. Everything inside of the house was ruined and the final amount I received was less than $10,000 to cover everything because I had no flood insurance.”

FEMA covered Warren’s entire home in blue tarp due to the hole in the roof.

“It was only a small section that was damaged but FEMA covered the entire house regardless of how big the hole was. The [roofing] contractor came to lift it up, and picked up the nails that FEMA had placed. The tarp and nails did more damage than the initial hole.”

With so many scam artists seeking to profit on others’ misfortunes, Warren claimed it was preferable to be on a waiting list for a reputable roofing contractor, even though he has waited more than two years for his roof to be permanently fixed. He hopes that his name will come up on the list by June 2008.

The roof constituted just a small portion of Warren’s troubles. His more immediate problems involved the mud and toxins that were covering his living space. Warren did all of the cleaning and removal himself.

“I drove to Hattiesburg [Mississippi] to a company that sold antibacterial cleaners to get rid of the mold and toxins. The cleaner was a controlled substance in an unmarked bottle. The company trained me how to use the chemicals and the respirator that came with them.”

He cleaned his garage first so that he could live there while he rehabbed his home. Warren had to wait 2 to 3 weeks for the chemicals to subside in the garage before anything was livable. He had to remove the wallboard and wash down the studs that held up the roof. FEMA left him home tests to check the mold and toxin levels and he has had two professional inspections since the storm. “Everything is safe now,” he said.

The problems outside his home don’t have such straightforward solutions. Every time it rains new sinkholes open up in his yard.

“There are new sink holes all the time. A new one developed 3 days ago. I stepped in it and went down to my knee until I caught myself. The city comes and throws gravel in and packs it with “camper” and adds soil to it.”

Warren says that this fixes the sinkholes, but new ones continue to pop up.

Along with the sinkholes, Warren has had trouble growing any new plants in his yard.

“After 6 months I tried planting. It didn’t work. After 1 to 2 months everything looked great, but then everything turned brown. The land had to cleanse itself,” he said. Now, “the ground has purged itself of the toxins and things grow, but I’m still waiting for external work so there’s no point in planting much, because it will just get trampled by the workers.”

With all of these problems one might wonder, “Why stay?” Warren works for Northrupp Grumman Shipbuilders and had only four years until retirement at the time of Katrina. Since Warren still had a job to go to, it made sense for him to stay and rebuild. Others couldn’t cope. Warren related the story of his elderly aunt and uncle who lost everything in the storm.

“My uncle has since passed away. He couldn’t handle the stress and devastation. And people don’t have to be old to feel that stress.”

How To, Interview

Hurricane Carla hit land in September of 1961. At the time, Kay Snow’s family was living in Cedar Creek, Texas, a small town situated on the Gulf of Mexico south of Houston, Texas.

“When you live on the coast, you get hurricane warnings every year,” says Snow. “Hurricanes move fast or they stall in the water…my father just never believed that it was gonna to come.”

But it did come.

It made landfall as a category 4 — which at the time made it the most powerful tropical storm to have hit Texas in 40 years. Wind speeds reached over 150 miles an hour making it a formidable force. It caused a storm surge of 22 feet that penetrated 10 miles inland in some places causing more than $300 million in damages in Texas, and $2 billion in damages overall. The hurricane formed on Sept. 3, 1961, in the western Caribbean Sea and dissipated on Sept. 16, 1961. Snow recalls that Hurricane Carla lasted three days in her hometown.

“I can only imagine what my dad felt when looking at the shambles of what was once his life. He built his house from the ground up. I remember his saying that the house would be so safe,” says Snow. “He built it of concrete block, you see, so that was the safest of all materials for a storm.”

Snow describes the creek that ran behind their house as “not quite a river but more than a creek.” It emptied into the Gulf of Mexico fairly close to where the Snows lived. The flow of the tide determined whether it carried salt water or fresh water. She says their house was fairly typical but she remembers how her father painted the living room walls what he called “sunset gray,” inspired by the muted tones of the dusk sky.
The skies were certainly gray when Hurricane Carla touched ground.

Given the power and size of the hurricane, it is surprising that it claimed only 43 lives — a statistic that likely would have been much higher if not for the fast evacuation of more than 500,000 people from the area.

“They called for the immediate evacuation for the region, but my father was a very head strong man and felt he was better off staying,” says Snow. “Nothing could talk my dad into leaving Caney Creek…he kept insisting that either it wouldn’t hit at all, or if it did, it wouldn’t be as strong as the news suggested. Finally, down to the wire, we talked him into gathering what things he could and coming to Houston and safety. He had just enough time to pack one bag and get out before the brunt of the storm hit.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Galveston Airport recorded 16.49″ of rain in the four-day period involving Hurricane Carla. Low-lying areas, like Cedar Creek, experienced extensive flooding with the storm.

The house did not survive the storm — all that remained was rubble. “Anything that the wind or the water could carry away,” says Snow, “it did carry away.” The family lost almost all of their mementos and keepsakes. Snow had recently graduated from school that spring and had taken a few items to her aunt’s house in Houston, where she was staying at the time of the hurricane. However, aside from the few pictures she took with her, items from her childhood and belongings of her recently deceased mother remained at Cedar Creek and were all swept away during the storm.

She recalls her father’s anger after the storm. His lost his wife to cancer a few months before he lost his home to Hurricane Carla. He gave up on the life he had always known in Cedar Creek and moved to a travel trailer inland. He never returned to the coast.

Snow does not recall people in her community doing much to secure memories, or prepare much at all (preparedness resources), for that matter. “Sargent, Texas, was the nearest real town and resources were hard to come by,” she says.

The family survived and fortunately their home insurance came through after her father proved that “rushing water and wind” the toppled the house, not just “rising water.”
“The lesson in this story is what not to do — my dad thought that the house would be great. It protected us from hot temperatures and but it couldn’t protect us from hurricane-force winds,” says Snow. “I saw on the television show Extreme Makeover – Home Edition that they built a round house for people who had been through Katrina! No corners — they said that any hurricane winds and water would rush around the house.”

Round houses may protect a home, but it was the evacuation that saved lives during Hurricane Carla.

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When asked to recall how Hurricane Hugo affected her hometown of Kingstree, South Carolina, Adayln Cooper remembers most that the storm pulled together her fellow community members. On the eve of September 21, 1989, the storm struck Kingstree, a rural town (whose population hovers around 3,500) that is located about 50 miles from the Atlantic Coast and just over 70 miles from Charleston. Adayln and her family were holed up in their large, concrete two-story home, which was seemingly unmovable.

However, the ferocious and merciless winds that whipped through the town moved their concrete structure a full two inches. Her neighbors were not as lucky. The house across from Adayln’s was completely ripped off its foundation, with only just sand and steel pegs left behind. Adalyn remembers the storm demolished many houses in Columbia, a city two hours west of Kingstree where her relatives lived. Nearby inlets and canals were filled with debris that once were the building blocks of people’s homes. After the storm, all folks could do was walk around and pick through the rubble.

When Hurricane Hugo hit the shores of Charleston, South Carolina, at 11:30 p.m., its winds exceeded 130 miles per hour. The roof was blown off a local elementary school, exposing the huddling 100 lives inside to the fierce storm.

Adalyn’s niece, Elza, was sheltering in her Columbia home during the storm. Although she was fascinated by this forceful weather event, Elza says, “when the hurricane was going, it looked like the world was going to end.” Witnessing the power of the storm inspired Elza to pursue a career in hurricane mitigation, working with a South Carolina insurance firm.

Before the shock wore off, the National Guard, state troopers, firefighters, and good Samaritans came to South Carolina to help in the recovery. “FEMA put a gigantic rolled up bag next to our home filled with water,” says Adalyn, referring to the large “bladders” that the agency uses to distribute large amounts of water to survivors. “The highway turned into a long stream of traffic of people lined up to get water.”

Adalyn’s family home was also the community’s general store. “After the hurricane, friends and neighbors came into the store sharing stories of the families in the more rural areas of Georgetown County.” People who lived to the west of Kingstree had very little to begin with, but after the storm, they were left with close to nothing. This heart-wrenching news moved Adalyn and her friends to collect money and food from local businesses, country folk, and churches in order to provide essentials and support to the hard-hit families there.

“They had so little then,” says Adalyn. “It was too sad…they had nothing left.” Adalyn and her friends worked for days delivering supplies to those who needed fresh food and water. The power in Kingstree was off for three weeks; townspeople remained in their homes playing cards and connecting with other survivors. “People came together despite what they heard, or knew about each other, it was distinctly American.”

Elza came away from living through this experience valuing the importance of preparedness but believes people who live near bodies of water need to be cautious. “It is important to not have low-lying homes and to get as far from the beach as you can before building your home,” Elza advises. She stresses that most insurance policies do not cover flooding; therefore, homeowners need to reinforce their doors with storm-resistant framing. But no matter how prepared people might be, Elza points out that proper preparedness does not mean a hurricane will not destroy your home.

Adalyn’s home built two generations ago by her grandfather still stands today, however South Carolina is still rebuilding in 2008 after the terrifying ferocity that was Hurricane Hugo.


The PLAN!T NOW Center, opening in March 2009 in North Carolina, will develop disaster preparedness curricula for use by schools in at-risk communities, to teach children how to be safe. The Center is hosted by the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) and the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, headed by Dr. Gavin Smith (author of the Expert Advice column). More information on RENCI’s disaster research efforts can be found at their website.


FEMA has a website set up specifically to assist victims of Hurricane Ike. Go to FEMA’s website to learn about and connect with government resources. Information is offered in English and Spanish.

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