Uncle Sam Primed and Ready for Felix

Article excerpt

WHEN hurricane Andrew ripped through south Florida in 1992, the federal government waited until the Sunshine State's governor asked for help before sending in supplies and disaster experts.

There is now a gale of a difference in the government's response.

Even before Felix had vented its destructive 80-mile-per-hour winds and 5-to-10-foot storm surge on North Carolina's outer banks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was mobilizing. FEMA had its disaster response "blue team " at Fort Bragg, N.C., where its 125 specialists could get to storm-ravaged areas quickly. Although FEMA is working with North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, it didn't wait for his SOS call.

"We've learned a lot. FEMA has changed its whole response to disaster as a result of hurricane Andrew, " says Richard Krimm, FEMA's associate director for response and recovery.

While those who have lost homes or loved ones to the storm may find little solace in the change, others will welcome the faster arrival of federal disaster specialists.

An urban search-and-rescue team - the same group that searched for survivors in the Oklahoma City bombing wreckage - were waiting to look for missing people. And, food, water, and shelter have already been readied. If the front-line "blue team " needs help, the government is set to call in its "red " or "white" teams.

FEMA may have its hands full. At press time, the wind speeds clocked by Felix gave it a relatively weak Category 1 hurricane rating. The worst storms are Category 5, with winds in excess of 155 m.p.h. But Felix is big, churning up waves along the Eastern seaboard and forcing summer vacationers inland and closing beaches from North Carolina to Maine.

Felix battered Bermuda on Monday and Tuesday, leaving thousands of residents without electricity and forcing the postponement of a vote on independence from Britain.

Not only is FEMA better prepared for this hurricane, but many East Coast communities have also enacted tougher building codes in recent years in order to qualify for federal flood insurance. "In the past you could have widespread damage for some distance from the beach, " explains Bob Byrne, a geologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester, Va. …