June 14, 2006

Did Florida’s Bush Overreact Over Alberto?

By Tom Brown

MIAMI -- Did Florida Gov. Jeb Bush cry wolf this week by declaring a state of emergency even before Tropical Storm Alberto created one? Maybe, but maybe not, say disaster experts.

Alberto, the first cyclone of what is expected to be a busy 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, was advertised as a potentially deadly monster. But it turned out to be a wimp.

Bush, younger brother of President Bush, was clearly unwilling to take any chances after last year's Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. So when forecasters warned that Alberto could become the year's first hurricane, he put Florida under a state of emergency and 20,000 people were ordered to evacuate their homes.

Disaster experts said the governor, who has been touted by his brother as a possible president-in-waiting, was probably right to err on the side of caution.

"The problem is this is Mother Nature," said former New York Police Department Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who gives Bush and his team of emergency management officials high marks for their level of disaster preparedness.

Encouraging residents to panic over mere tropical storms, or even weak hurricanes, which pose only a moderate threat can have consequences, disaster experts say. The next time a storm comes through, residents suffering "storm fatigue" may ignore the warnings to get out of harm's way.

"I think what it does is send the wrong message," said Norris Beren, executive director of the Emergency Preparedness Educational Institute.

"We're going to get hurricane fatigue coming into play very quickly. The next time it happens ... people are going to say, 'Ah hell, I've been through this before. I'm not doing this again."'

But caution was more prudent, said Paul Ruscher, an associate professor of meteorology at Florida State University, given the uncertainties in forecasting the potential intensity of storms, and even in plotting their most likely course.

"Even though they've been rather numerous in the last couple of years, in general they're rather freakish, unusual rare events and we don't have the luxury of a huge sample of these storms," he said.

State officials and disaster experts said Alberto turned out to be a good practice exercise for Floridians as they and other U.S. coastal dwellers face what is expected to be a busy six-month hurricane season.

Ruscher said officials were right to fear Alberto because it was approaching a low-lying area of Florida's Gulf Coast that is particularly prone to flooding, or storm surge.

Ruscher acknowledged, however, that Bush had run the risk of "scaring the bejesus out of the public," for a whimper of a storm.