Bracing for the next big hurricane

Lane Lambert

Like much of southern New England, the South Shore stood shattered and darkened on Sept. 1, 1954.

Hurricane Carol had swept the region the day before, with Category 3-force winds that gusted up to 135 mph. Worse in some places than the landmark 1938 hurricane, Carol killed 68 people, leveled thousands of homes and buildings, and left most of eastern Massachusetts and other areas without power or phone service for days.

The South Shore hasn’t endured a hurricane of such intensity in going on 54 years. With each passing year, more people are wondering if the odds for the next big one are getting shorter – and if their communities are prepared for the hit.

As official 2008 hurricane season begins, meteorologists and state and local emergency officials have two answers for those questions:

Yes, local towns are adequately prepared.

No, the odds for a Katrina-scale hurricane haven’t really changed.

The National Weather Service is forecasting above-normal activity in the Atlantic’s 2008 season, which began June 1 and lasts until Nov. 30.

The outlook from the weather service’s National Hurricane Center calls for 12 to 16 named storms and six to nine hurricanes, with two to five being Category 3 or stronger. But Alan Dunham at the weather service’s Taunton office says “there’s no way to forecast” where along the coast the storms will strike, or how intense they will become.

Dunham and other analysts say the absence of hurricanes for a year or decades does not increase the likelihood of a hurricane, since storms form from each season’s atmospheric conditions.

South Shore residents can also take comfort from a forecast from Colorado State University’s nationally known Tropical Meteorology Research Project, which works with Bridgewater State College.

That project gives the area from Quincy to Cohasset a one-tenth of 1 percent chance of getting a Katrina-level hurricane this season. The coast from Scituate down to Plymouth and Cape Cod has a slightly higher chance – 0.5 percent.

‘Going to have one’

Odds aside, “you know that eventually we’re going to have one” as bad as Hurricane Carol, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency spokesman Peter Judge said. To prepare for that day, state and coastal communities hold simulations and communication drills.

A few weeks ago, MEMA and representatives from more than 30 southeastern Massachusetts communities gathered at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod to play out a mock response to a Katrina-style hurricane.

Two years ago, Hingham officials held a similar drill of their own. Fire Chief Mark Duff, the town’s emergency management director, said “it opened everybody’s eyes” to weaknesses in the town’s plan. Among the surprises was that cell phone contact might be unreliable.

Duff and Judge said the state and local communities now use all-purpose plans, which can manage anything from a hurricane to a terrorist incident.

“If you’re thoroughly prepared for a winter storm, you can certainly get through a hurricane in the summer,” Duff said.

Judge said the “X factor” is how residents will respond to the next hurricane of Carol’s intensity – particularly in the South Shore, where population and traffic are growing in density.

Even with the vivid images of the devastation Katrina caused in 2005, “it’s been so long, people have hurricane amnesia, or they’ve never been through one (that big),” he said.

Duff worries about that, too. “If 10 percent of people here are prepared to be on their own for 10 days, I’d be surprised,” he said.

Lane Lambert may be reached at llambert@ledger.com.

The other 'big ones'

Aug. 25, 1635, Great Colonial Hurricane: Between Boston and Plymouth; probably Category 3 or stronger; 46 casualties; 20-foot tidal surge in Boston.

Sept. 23, 1815, Great September Gale: Winds of 135 mph; 38 deaths; 500 homes, 35 ships and Neponset River bridge from Milton to Dorchester destroyed.

Sept. 21, 1938, Great New England Hurricane: Category 5, with gusts up to 183 mph; Providence flooded; 600 deaths; 1,700 injuries; more than 6,000 fishing vessels destroyed or damaged.

Aug. 31, 1954, Hurricane Carol: Category 3; 68 deaths; $460 million in damage; near-total loss of regional phone service; followed by Hurricane Edna on Sept. 11.

Aug. 19, 1991, Hurricane Bob: Peak winds of 125 mph; 7 inches of rain; 18 deaths; $1 billion in damage; 60 percent of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island without power.

Be prepared

Federal Emergency Management Agency: “Are You Ready?” citizen preparedness guide at http://www.fema.gov/areyouready

American Red Cross: Disaster services. Click “Preparedness” for emergency kit at http://www.redcross.org/services/disaster