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After Katrina, Focus On N.C. Coast Is On The Worst-Case Scenario

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JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Inside a cinderblock fortress built to withstand 200 mph winds and debris flying around at 100 mph, Mark Goodman is ready for Hurricane Alpha.

That's what Onslow County's emergency management director calls the imaginary Category 5 hurricane headed straight for his slice of North Carolina's coast -- a disaster scenario he and other emergency officials will practice in an exercise starting Tuesday. They'll be asked to decide whether to evacuate the county of 159,000, which is also home to the massive Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune.

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Then comes the sucker punch: After Alpha passes, leaving a crippled county in its wake, a Boy Scout troop will return home from a Jamboree in Alabama, infected with bird flu that's mutated for human-to-human transmission.

It might sound more like the disaster-an-hour television drama "24" than real life, but the devastation wrought last year to the Gulf Coast by hurricanes Katrina and Rita has spurred a renewed focus on worst case scenarios for emergency managers up and down the North Carolina coast.

"Something like Katrina focuses everybody: 'We better start looking at these things,'" Goodman said. "We've done several things (since last fall) that we probably had been hesitating to do."

With a long, angled coastline of barrier islands that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean, the geography of North Carolina appears to invite hurricanes ashore. Officials have become skilled at dealing with the relatively small hurricanes that blow through frequently: Fran and Bertha in one year back in the 1990s; Isabel in 2003; Charley in 2004; Ophelia last year.

Some might argue there's a certain amount of complacency in the state, which tends to yawn when it sees The Weather Channel camped out yet again at the base of Johnny Mercer's Fishing Pier in Wrightsville Beach.

But Katrina and Rita, the Category 4 storm that menaced Houston before devastating east Texas and western Louisiana last September, were reminders of just how bad a Big One -- the kind of storm not seen here since Hurricane Hazel in 1954 -- can be.

"The government can't do everything for everyone all the time," said Allen Smith, the emergency services director in Carteret County.

After watching the paralysis that gripped New Orleans and the Mississippi coast after Katrina roared ashore, Smith and his colleagues aren't counting on getting any help should a hurricane strike here. Local governments and their citizens need to be able to fend for themselves after a storm, he said.

"The first 72 hours of a response is only that -- a local government response," said Peter Rascoe, the public information officer for emergency management in Chowan County. "We have come to realize that it is only us that would be responding. We are not relying on federal and state aid in assisting us with initial response at all."

At Goodman's command center in Jacksonville, there's is a phone bank to field calls, a generator with enough fuel to keep the building running "off the grid" for a week and refrigerators to store critical medical supplies. Out back is a mobile medical unit and a set of trailers stuffed with cots, first aid equipment and generators that can be used to set up shelters.

Since last year, the county has also hired a national firm to handle debris removal in case of a catastrophic storm and purchased $20,000 worth of portable water purification systems that can turn contaminated sludge into 60 gallons of potable water per hour.

"You prepare for every event so that you're ready for any event," said Goodman, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who has been in charge of emergency operations in the county since 2002.

A computer program Goodman uses to estimate storm damage -- and has worked with great accuracy in the past, he said -- offers sobering projections. A Category 5 storm could destroy 15,000 residences in Onslow County, leaving thousands more uninhabitable. It would take a month for the county to get two-thirds of its pre-storm medical care capacity running again.

If the right front side of the storm hit Onslow at high tide, the result could be a 30-foot storm surge -- in a county where the highest point is just 49 feet about sea level.

"We were astounded at the level of damage that would occur," Goodman said. "It was worse than Hazel."

In New Hanover County -- home of the largest city on the North Carolina coast, Wilmington -- emergency management director Warren Lee said Katrina and Rita motivated the state association of emergency officials to begin work on regional evacuation and sheltering plans in case of a major storm.

In New Orleans, the decision to leave people who couldn't get out of Katrina's way in the Superdome was a major part of the disaster. Weeks later, when Rita appeared headed for Houston, that city emptied in a chaotic flight that resulted in epic traffic jams and the deaths of 23 nursing home patients on a bus that caught fire in stalled traffic near Dallas.

When it comes to evacuating from a Category 4 or 5 storm, Lee said, "The $64,000 question has always been how far west is far enough. You need to go at least to (Interstate) 95."

So far, conversations have focused on reaching evacuation agreements with counties as far inland as the Triad area of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point, he and other said. From Wilmington, getting to I-95 is a drive of about 100 miles. Winston-Salem is about 250 miles away.

Both Onslow County's Goodman and Christy Saunders, emergency management director in Pasquotank and Camden counties, said they have seen a surge in community groups volunteering to help with hurricane preparation and recovery efforts. Up and down the coast, those people are being given Community Emergency Response Team training.

"I think the best thing that's happened since Hurricane Katrina especially is that we've had a lot of community partners that have stepped up to the plate -- civic groups, the churches, public housing, Meals on Wheels, Civil Air Patrol, ROTC," Saunders said. "That's just great, because this is not anything that one agency or two or three agencies can do by themselves."

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