MIAMI – With the destructive arrival of Hurricane Ike in the Caribbean and then in Texas, it's clear that many hurricane lessons from previous storms still need to be reviewed and heeded next time.
In Cuba, where Ike made two landfalls, evacuations were carried out effectively and the loss of life was low compared to other countries. But, houses were in such poor shape and so unprotected that hundreds of thousands of homes and apartments were badly damaged or destroyed and could take years to replace. Something as simple as hurricane roofing straps or window shutters might have helped immensely in many cases – if such materials were ever available.
|SLIDESHOW: Ike's impact|
After covering scores of hurricanes in more than three decades I have come to learn that these storms sometimes have a strange way of fooling the experts, often in the last hours before or after landfall, and that there are no acceptable odds in gambling whether you'll narrowly escape the storm. I also know that hurricanes are always dangerous and should never be underestimated.
How many people in Texas now regret riding out this latest storm and swear they'll never do it again. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard that over the years, but take no joy in saying that. The terror and pain in the eyes of storm surge and hurricane eye-wall survivors is hard to forget. I will tell you that I know that fear personally.
In recent years, hurricane evacuation and recovery plans in the United States have gotten so much better, particularly after the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Florida has been at the forefront of this development and now many other states, along with the federal government, have joined to improve the plan. The coordinated evacuation effort in Louisiana before Hurricane Gustav this year was light years ahead of what happened in 2005.
Texas also mobilized extensively before Ike struck, but those plans are only as good as the people who are willing to follow them. As always, many people this time thought they knew better than the authorities and stayed behind, only to find themselves climbing into a Coast Guard helicopter rescue basket to save their lives.
Emergency managers' tough job
Emergency management officials have an extremely difficult and often thankless job, because they have to order mass evacuations while the sun is still shining and the winds are still calm. They base those decisions on forecasts from the National Hurricane Center which often change with the unstable atmospheric conditions. It takes time to move hundreds of thousands –sometimes millions – of people, so those evacuation orders have to be issued early.
And when they are proven wrong, because the storm moved away from the evacuation zone, there is then a lot of grumbling and talk of the "cry wolf" syndrome, leading to predictions that next time people won't be so willing to pack up and leave when ordered. For managers trying to save lives, it's the nightmare scenario.
|VIDEO: Cuba faces tough recovery from hurricanes|
Over the years, many people have asked me what I think about all the hurricanes I have covered and without a second thought I say that it's a complicated relationship. On the one hand, I find them fascinating scientifically and have tried to learn as much as I can about how their tracks and intensities are forecast. I have immense respect for the men and women at the National Hurricane Center and eagerly follow their work.
But, more and more I mostly despise hurricanes for what they do to so many people at once. I often say that if you are not injured, and your loved ones are safe, the worst part of a hurricane is not the storm, itself, but the traumatic years of rebuilding afterward.
When Hurricane Andrew demolished much of South Florida, where I live, I saw so many people struggling to recover – a half million people fighting for contractors and limited building supplies, all at the same time, while living in tiny trailers and spending hours and hours wrestling with their insurance companies. The emotional toll was sky-high, with many reports of domestic violence, depression and other distress.
For the reasons stated above, however, I also believe that covering hurricanes before and after their arrival is very important and serious work. Before landfall, our job is to warn residents in the storm zone of the upcoming dangers. Afterward, our job is to alert everyone else in the country about how badly many of their fellow citizens have been hurt, to report on their needs and to assess the recovery efforts.
Hurricane survival tips
For whomever it might help, I'd like to share a few hurricane survival observations made during so many years in the stormy tropics:
First, please get your house in order. A well-constructed and properly protected home is more likely to survive intact than a flimsy structure with no effort made to seal if from the winds. More than anything, shutters are essential – be they wood, aluminum, accordion-style, roll downs or hurricane-proof glass – for keeping the storm out of your house. Once the winds get inside, they have to get back out, and that is how roofs blow away and walls explode. Also, make sure you have enough water, food, flashlights, batteries, medicines and other supplies to last a week.
Second, there is no such thing as a "minimal" hurricane. I've heard many people say, "It's just a Category 1." Trust me, the eye-wall and surrounding winds of a Category 1 can knock you down, put a limb through your unprotected window, topple a tree onto your roof and snap a live power-line and lay it at your feet.
Just last week, my colleagues from the NBC News Havana office and I were in the town of Los Palacios in western Cuba just as the then-Category 1 Hurricane Ike roared through. We saw roofing materials blowing away, slogged through flooded streets, felt the sharp sting of rain on our faces and kept a wary lookout overheard for swaying telephone poles and wires. On the way into town, we had to stop our cars under a bridge for a while to protect ourselves from the fierce wind and blinding rain. All hurricanes are powerful and dangerous.
|VIDEO: In the eye of the storm as Ike slams Cuba|
Third, watch out for the water – all of it. The obliterated Mississippi coast during Katrina in 2005 taught us again about the unfathomable power of a hurricane storm surge. You must get far away.
And then there is the water that kills more people than anything else – the inland flooding resulting from torrential rain. Most people who die in hurricanes do so after the storm passes, often trapped in rushing water a long distance from the coast.
Fourth, don't be too sure of where the hurricane is going. As I wrote earlier, they can change direction quickly. Few remember this, but Hurricane Katrina hit South Florida first, before taking its fateful aim at the Gulf Coast.
Right after landfall north of Miami, it took an unexpected southerly turn, catching a lot of people by surprise, including my wife, who found herself unknowingly driving though the calm eye of the storm right into the raging winds of the eye-wall. Moments later, a huge tree fell on her car with her in it. She was badly shaken, but luckily escaped injury. I was even more shaken when I got her cell phone call telling me she was under that tree. I was miles away on the north side of the storm covering it for NBC Nightly News and couldn't get to her. There is no more helpless feeling in the world.
And lastly, a point worth repeating. When emergency managers order an evacuation it really IS time to go, hopefully to a safe place that you've picked in advance.
In Florida, it usually means moving inland only a few miles or more. Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast it's a longer trip to safety, but is still absolutely necessary.
If you need convincing, go to Google, type in the words "Waveland, Mississippi" and then hit "Images." Those scenes of utter devastation are real and occurred just three years ago.
If that doesn't do it, find someone who rode out Katrina there and somehow survived. Listen to his or her harrowing tale to know why they won't make that near-fatal error again. And, please, you shouldn't make that mistake, either.
NBC News Correspondent Mark Potter is based in Miami, Florida. He has covered hurricanes in Florida, the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts and throughout the Caribbean for more than 30 years.
Click here for complete coverage of Hurricane Ike