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The Storm Next Time 

Talk about timing. Next month, several hundred insurers will converge on New Orleans for a long-planned annual convention on how to reduce human casualties, property damage and economic losses during natural disasters. Following Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili, we cannot think of a better time or place for an annual meeting of the Institute for Business & Home Safety, a nonprofit disaster safety group sponsored by the insurance industry.

The three-day conference starts Nov. 13, with disaster experts from both private and public sectors discussing lessons learned from the floods of Tropical Storm Allison. Other panels address the nation's "aging inventory of levees" and how new development contributes to flooding woes. (For more information on the conference, visit www.ibhs.org or call (813) 675-1047.)

Controlling insurance losses through building code enforcement is another big item on the convention agenda. It sounds dry on paper, but anyone who heard Fox8 TV weathercaster Bob Breck rant about inadequate state building codes as Lili bore down on Louisiana will want to hear more about that critical issue.

With so many insurance carriers trying to bail out of our flood-prone coastal state, our elected officials should endeavor to keep the insurance industry intact in Louisiana and stabilize homeowner premiums. Public officials also should attend some of the convention seminars, which seem tailor-made for Louisiana.

The conference is scheduled to conclude with a presentation on 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which cost the insurance industry $20 billion in combined claims from Louisiana and Florida. Insurers have been writing fewer homeowner policies in Louisiana since Andrew, the most expensive storm in American history. This unhappy trend has forced current homeowners to pay as much as 30 percent above market rates for special high-risk insurance provided by a pool of carriers. Preliminary figures from the Louisiana Department of Insurance show a combined total of roughly $240 million in claims from Lili and Isidore. That figure will increase.

Every hurricane season seems to expose new weaknesses in human endeavors to escape the storms' wrath. Hurricane Georges (1998) revealed a frightening lack of evacuation planning by families of the aged and infirm as well as by area nursing homes. Dozens of these "special needs" patients were dumped at the Superdome or bused to Baton Rouge shelters via crowded highways, provoking an outcry about the added strain placed on emergency services in the capitol city.

Four years later, as Lili stormed toward our coast, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster and Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove publicly squabbled over the terms of a Georges-inspired plan to evacuate southeast Louisiana by turning all four lanes of Interstate-59 into a northbound highway.

Musgrove rejected Foster's interpretation of the "contraflow" plan, saying it would strain his state's emergency services at the expense of protecting Mississippi from coastal flooding and hurricane-spun tornadoes. The governors reached a compromise -- only one day before Lili hit south central Louisiana. Fortunately, evacuation of New Orleans, which officials say would require 72 hours, was not necessary. Not this time.

As the insurance group gathers, we need the industry's best thinking on two critical questions:

· What are the necessary components of a regional hurricane evacuation and refugee plan that would help all Gulf Coast residents who may not be able to return home for weeks, or longer, after a storm?

· When is the optimal time to call for an evacuation of New Orleans, which has 100,000 people who depend on public transportation?

Meanwhile, local media should temper storm warnings with cautionary science about the unpredictability of hurricane force winds, lest the public become distrustful of their reporting and dangerously complacent. Some storms can "wimp out" -- or rear up --literally overnight. (See "Lessons from Lili," in this issue.)

Since 1891, 28 hurricanes have made landfall in Louisiana, including the Category 2 Lili. Emergency officials fear that New Orleans, which has not suffered a major hurricane since Betsy in 1965, cannot continue to skate by on hope and prayers that killer storms will continue to go the other way. Fears have increased as coastal erosion has eaten away natural barriers that once could be counted upon to slow hurricane winds.

In "The Sinking of New Orleans," a report on the storm threat to our city that aired nationally Sept. 20 on PBS, correspondent Bill Moyers noted, "The American Red Cross lists the worst natural disasters that might strike America. They worry about earthquakes in California, and tropical storms in Florida. But they say the biggest catastrophe could be a hurricane hitting New Orleans."

Thousands dead. A city flooded. Pumps overwhelmed. The historic French Quarter destroyed. The chilling report notes that engineers are already marking our city's avenues and roadways by longitude and latitude in the event street signs and landmarks are swept away.

Our city faces many woes, including crime and poverty. But even a "moderate" hurricane with no casualties can cripple New Orleans' economy if we fail to prepare for the storm next time. The insurance industry convention is a good place to start.

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