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Getting ready for the big one


Florida officials struggling with the devastatation wrought by Hurricane Andrew estimate that 63,000 homes have been destroyed. Before this number is lost in a welter of statistics, Marylanders should contemplate what it means.

Even if the Florida definition of "destroyed" is exaggerated, even if it is a haven for mobile homes vulnerable to nature's vicissitudes, Andrew's toll in Florida is equal to the total detached housing of Dundalk, Essex, Perry Hall, White Marsh, Reisterstown, Catonsville, Middle River and Pikesville. This estimate, from the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, indicates that a catastrophe comparable to the Florida disaster would wipe out almost a quarter of Baltimore County's 283,000 houses.

Such a comparison, however fanciful, should make us all aware that hurricanes, tornadoes and even earthquakes are not always occurrences that happen somewhere else. Not since the big one of 1933 has Maryland experienced a Category 4 hurricane of the kind that swept across southern Florida. Even Hurricane Agnes of a decade ago was a Category 1 affair notable more for the flood waters it dumped than any destructive winds it generated.

For officials of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, Andrew was of special fascination because of the strain it put on evacuation facilities from the Florida Keys and other low-lying coastal areas. Was two days' warning enough? Did citizens comply with wrenching orders to leave their homes? Were exit routes adequate? Were officials prepared to care for victims, protect property and process legitimate claims for rebuilding?

Such questions should be of concern to Maryland, where the Delmarva peninsula is vacationland with limited egress for half a million persons each summer, and the Chesapeake Bay, jutting deep inland, could be the scene of an 18-foot surge flooding major roads on both the Eastern and Western Shores. Although state officials dispute private consultants who describe Delmarva as the third-most difficult evacuation site in the country, their confidence rests mainly on early warning.

Because Marylanders' experience with a high-wind hurricane is almost nil, the main worry has to be that out of foolishness, bravado or sentiment, too many would risk their lives rather than flee out of harm's way. The best remedy for that should be thorough study of the pictures and reports of what Andrew left in its wake.

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