Is city ready for a Katrina?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 13, 2005

A hurricane of Katrina’s strength pushing through southeastern Virginia would cause $40 to $60 billion in damage, flood coastal cities and force the evacuation of more than 700,000 people, according to state projections.

It’s been just over two years since Hurricane Isabel n which had been downgraded to a tropical storm before making landfall in Hampton Roads n pounded the region. Winds reaching upwards of 60 mph ravaged parts of Suffolk, uprooting trees, knocking out power for days and causing an estimated $50 million in wind and water damage, said Capt. James T. Judkins, the city’s emergency services coordinator.

Both the city and state are heeding lessons learned from Isabel and the Gulf Coast’s experience with Katrina as local emergency plans are updated.


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“Katrina is making cities take a real close at their emergency plans,” said Judkins, who is in the process of crafting updates and revisions to the city emergency operations plan.

The plan is traditionally updated and presented to the Suffolk City Council for approval every five years, he added.

Judkins doesn’t foresee any changes to the state’s evacuation plan for flood-prone parts of Suffolk, which calls for the evacuation to begin 14 hours prior to the onset of tropical storm-force winds.

“But we are reexamining our resources,” Judkins said. “For example, we need to know how many school buses we have that we can use and how many buses the city owns that we can use for evacuations.”

More than 900 people died in Katrina, many because they were unable to receive necessary medical treatment in a timely manner. That situation is causing local officials to examine mass care issues should a hurricane or other natural disaster hit Suffolk, Judkins said.

These days, so many people living at home depend upon electricity for their medical resources, such as oxygen and motorized wheelchairs, Judkins said. If a hurricane or other natural disaster knocked out power for too long, the consequences could be deadly.

He said the city has a fledging database listing people with special medical needs for emergency responders to access during such situations. But with the medical privacy protections in place today, the only way to grow the database is for impacted residents to contact Judkins’ office at 923-2110 with pertinent information.

The city is also working through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use the latest technology, including GPS and computer simulations, to get more precise data on the city’s flood zones, Judkins said.

Despite all the work the city is doing, the most important thing is for all residents to be prepared to fend for themselves for a few days.

Judkins said he recommends that people stock up on enough canned foods, extra medications and water that each family member could survive for

a week.

“People need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Judkins said. “It’s that plain and simple, from emergency responders right on down to citizens.

“People have the expectation that when they dial 911, someone will be there in three to four minutes,” he continued. “But any locality put under the gun with a disaster on the magnitude of Katrina will be faced with public expectations that will far exceed abilities.

“Emergency responders will do all they can to help as soon as they can. But in the event of a major disaster, they will be overwhelmed and not able to get to everyone as quickly as they normally would.”