Learning lessons of Isabel, Md. prepares for Irene

Marylanders are familiar with hurricanes, and they are warily eyeing the latest threat, Irene, as she moves up the East Coast. She looks big and fierce, and the hope is that she will be a passing acquaintance, not giving Maryland her full attention. But no one is sure how she is going to comport herself, so preparations are being made on the assumption that Irene could behave badly.

Eight years ago, Tropical Storm Isabel came whirling up the East Coast and sent a destructive storm surge up the Chesapeake Bay that caught many Marylanders sleeping. This time around Maryland officials have been sounding repeated warnings of the havoc Irene can wreak and what steps citizens can take to be prepared. The Eastern Shore and costal communities appear to be at the highest risk of storm damage. This is not a weekend to go to the beach, and Ocean City leaders are, for a change, urging people to stay away.

Even if we don't get the storm's full impact, we are likely to be hit with power outages. The combination of high winds, drenching rains and ground that is already saturated will likely mean many trees will tumble, bringing down power lines. Already repair crews are being mustered. On the home front, Marylanders should be stocking up on batteries. Assume your power is going to be out for three days, emergency officials say. They recommend putting fresh batteries in radios and flashlights.

In addition, local emergency planners recommend these basic precautions: gathering a "go kit" of essentials, including medications; filling the car's gas tank; stocking up on fresh water — a gallon per person per day — and having a plan to keep in contact with family members. Residents of low-lying areas might want to invite themselves to the homes of friends who live on higher ground. A complete list of recommended hurricane preparations is at http://www.ready.gov.

Besides a more vigilant public, it appears that government agencies have become more hurricane savvy. Storm predicting mechanisms, including those measuring storm surges, have been enhanced. The Federal Office of Emergency Management, heavily criticized for its lackluster effort after Katrina, has since improved its performance. As Irene crawled up the coast this week, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency conducted two-a-day briefings with emergency management teams throughout the state to make preparations for the storm. Baltimore City is breaking out the sandbags, dispensing them at two locations in Fells Point and in the Inner Harbor. Residents and business owners can fill their own sandbags and position them around their property. Baltimore County is telling citizens to prepare for a storm like Isabel and is ready to send out evacuation warnings through a reverse 911 phone messaging program. Crews are keeping an eye on flood-prone roads and plan to close them as necessary. Irene won't catch the state napping.

One of the biggest messes made in Maryland by Isabel in 2003 was the insurance quagmire after the storm. Flood victims, including many in Eastern Baltimore County, thought their homeowners insurance policies would cover damage and were shocked to learn that flood insurance was a separate coverage, handled through a federal flood insurance program. Some homeowners who had flood insurance were treated poorly, and only after intervention by Maryland Congressional delegation were cases reopened and claims paid.

Since then the Maryland Insurance Administration has sent out a drumbeat of announcements, explaining the difference between homeowners insurance — which usually covers damage caused by wind — and flood insurance, which covers damage from water. Moreover, this week , the insurance administration encouraged citizens who had questions about claims or complaints about coverage to call the agency's hotline (410-468-2340). That's a marked shift from the not-our-problem attitude it displayed after Isabel.

Hurricanes are unpredictable, and no preparations are ever perfect. But unlike prior years, when hurricane warnings were shrugged off, people seem to be paying attention this time. Perhaps this newfound vigilance is because we learned from Isabel, or from the much worse devastation that hurricane Katrina inflicted on the Gulf Coast in 2005. Maybe it is because the earth moved under our feet this week. Whatever the reason, we are getting ready for Irene. Mother Nature, as we have seen, is not always nice.

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