LA: FEMA OFFICIALS SURVEY HURRICANE RITA DAMAGE
Varley/sipa  /  Sipa Press
The destroyed remains of a downtown business in Cameron, Louisiana two days after Hurricane Rita ravaged the small town. Rita and its destructive predecessor Katrina have spurred local leaders across the nation to dust off disaster plans in their areas.
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updated 9/29/2005 1:41:02 PM ET 2005-09-29T17:41:02

Hurricane-caused destruction on the Gulf Coast has business and government leaders across the country dusting off disaster plans and asking: What if the worst happened here?

In South Florida, that could be a hurricane even more destructive than Katrina. In San Francisco, an earthquake or terrorist attack could cause devastation. Even inland cities have their worries. In Denver, for instance, some saw Katrina's impact on New Orleans and worried about flooding in the Mile High City.

For San Francisco Bay area government officials, the bumbling government response to Hurricane Katrina should hold plenty of lessons. That's because Northern California is currently working on a regional disaster response plan, the San Francisco Business Times reports.

While most cities in the region have their own plans, this latest effort is one of bringing together officials to figure out how to coordinate regional evacuation, housing and transportation of people thrown from their homes.

"An important first step is, how are we all going to work together?" said Celeste Cook, the director of Santa Clara County's emergency preparedness division. A regional plan "makes so much sense. We don't live in a vacuum. You can't plan just for your jurisdiction."

The San Francisco Business Times reports that the San Francisco Bay area has plenty to worry about. The city's financial district and nearby Silicon Valley are considered possible terrorist targets. Scientists say the likelihood of a damaging earthquake is about 60 percent in the next 30 years. And even if the earthquake doesn't hit inland, a earthquake in the Pacific Ocean could cause a tsunami.

It's not just a matter of planning for California cities, the Sacramento Business Journal reports. Prompted in part by the collapse of communications following Katrina, governments and businesses in California have shown new interest in upgrading their systems so they'll be able to talk with each other in case of the floods, wildfires and earthquakes of the Golden State.

"We can justify it in California," Eric Wilson, CIO of Raley's supermarkets, which has 117 stores in California. "Katrina is making us sit up and pay attention."

While the West Coast may have the most famous fault lines, Midwestern cities may be much less well-prepared for the possibility of a major quake -- and one could happen there, too. St. Louis sits about 150 miles north of the New Madrid Fault, which shook the continent in 1811 and 1812, and could again.

There's a 25-40 percent chance the New Madrid Fault could be the site of a 6-or-greater magnitude earthquake in any 50-year period.

"Everything I've read over the last 10 to 15 years says people should be concerned about it," David Unnewehr, senior research manager at the Washington, D.C.-based American Insurance Association (AIA), an advocate for property-casualty insurers, told the St. Louis Business Journal. "It's a good time, with Hurricane Katrina, to see how well we are covered."

The New Madrid seismic zone includes such cities as St. Louis and Memphis, and the region could face insured losses as high as $75 billion if a major quake hit. But the last major quake was in 1812, so building codes vary in Missouri by county, and fewer residents buy earthquake insurance there than in California and Washington state.

"The nature of the problem is that earthquakes are a rare event, but if they do occur, they could have a major impact," said Bob Herrmann, a professor of geophysics at Saint Louis University.

Along the east coast, the hurricanes were another reminder of just how vulnerable many American cities are.

After watching the situation in New Orleans, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley asked for a review of that city's evacuation plans, the Baltimore Business Journal reports.

"Whenever we have the opportunity, we try to refine, update and improve our preparedness plans," the mayor said. "We will be looking at lessons to be learned (from the Gulf states)."

Parts of downtown Baltimore were flooded by a surge from Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and Katrina served as a reminder to state and city officials to upgrade plans and lay in supplies, the Baltimore Business Journal reports.

Insurance industry experts have in recent weeks estimated the damage from Hurricane Katrina at as much as $60 billion and Hurricane Rita at about $6 billion. Those damage figures could seem much less than a catastrophic storm in South Florida, the South Florida Business Journal reports.

A catastrophic hurricane hitting the populous and heavily developed counties of Dade and Broward -- not far from the 1992 path of Hurricane Andrew -- would "eclipse Hurricane Katrina many times over," said Orlando economist Hank Fishkind. That's because South Florida has about three times the number of people as the New Orleans area and many times the property value of the Gulf Coast. In fact, the business journal reports, a storm similar to one that hit South Florida in 1928 would easily cause more than $100 billion damage.

"All of the existing pre-Andrew buildings ... are going to be blown away," said litigation attorney Dennis Haber, president of the Attorneys' Real Estate Council of Miami-Dade. "And we are presuming things are being built to code even now."

But in some ways, a history of hurricanes from early in the 20th century to the recent past has helped South Florida get ready for the worst, the business journal reports. "Some of the things we've done since Hurricane Andrew are to outfit buildings with hurricane shutters and upgrade doors to take higher wind loads," Florida Power & Light Spokeswoman Kathy Scott told the business journal. "Since our plants are open to the elements, we're susceptible to having insulation stripped off by high winds, so we've upgraded our insulation specifications as well."

And the dikes, built after hurricanes in the 20th century to keep Lake Okeechobee from flooding are expected to do a better job holding off flood waters than the levees of Lake Pontchartrain on the edge of New Orleans. "There are substantive differences between what occurred in New Orleans and what we can expect here on our project in South Florida. As with all man-made engineered structures the (dike) is not invulnerable to potential for failure," reads a Sept. 14 Corps emergency plan.

American City Business Journals, Inc.

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