It started out nearly two weeks ago as barely a blip on most Americans' radar screen: a tropical depression off the coast of Africa that strengthened, earned the name Isabel, then strengthened still more into one of the most powerful hurricanes on record.
Although she slipped to a high-level Category 2 storm by the time she screamed ashore south of Cape Hatteras, N.C., on Thursday, Isabel's swirling fury still stretched some 400 miles in diameter, delivering damaging winds and threatening severe flooding along a huge swath from South Carolina to New York.
Even a weakened Isabel packed the potential for widespread damage and destruction. Authorities in North Carolina and Virginia ordered the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from low-lying coastal regions. In Virginia's populous Tidewater area, one police chief warned those who ignored the evacuation order to write their names in permanent marker on their forearms to help with identification if they were injured or killed.
With a storm as big and slow moving as Isabel, flooding was the main concern for emergency-management officials. Historically, half of all hurricane fatalities result from drowning rather than building collapse or other wind-related causes. With the Mid-Atlantic still soggy after an extraordinarily wet summer, water tables were already high and rivers swollen. Up to a foot of new rain would only compound the problem, sending major rivers like the Potomac surging into city streets. That threat virtually shut down Washington, D.C., on Thursday: Public schools and the federal government were closed for business, and the region's busy Metro system ground to a halt.
Along the coast, closer to the eye of the hurricane, officials worried about a storm surge predicted to approach 20 feet in places. In North Carolina's Outer Banks, where many homes are no more than a foot above sea level, such a huge surge could literally wash away everything in its path and leave entire neighborhoods underwater.
Hurricanes are nothing new to the Southeast, of course. Ever since an unnamed Category 4 storm claimed some 6,000 lives in Galveston, Texas, in 1900, forecasters have been refining their models and relief groups have been improving their methods.
Isabel won instant respect as a rare Category 5 hurricane-the first to be seen in the Atlantic this century. Only three such massive storms have hit the United States since 1935, and the destruction in each case was cataclysmic. As Isabel raged through the eastern Atlantic with winds topping 160 mph, relief workers thousands of miles away started preparing for the worst.
In suburban Atlanta, Terry Henderson watched the storm nervously for 10 days. As the national disaster relief director for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board (NAMB), Mr. Henderson oversees the third-largest relief organization in North America. With more than 200 recovery units and nearly 30,000 trained volunteers at its disposal, the NAMB is a key provider of emergency food and shelter in the wake of natural disasters.
For more than week it seemed obvious that the Baptist group's help would be sorely needed after Isabel came ashore. The question was where? And how much? "Because of Hugo and Floyd and Andrew, we just guesstimate as best we can and gear up quickly," Mr. Henderson explained. "You can always back down."
From a bunker-like operations center in the basement of NAMB's headquarters, planning efforts began in earnest on Sept. 12, nearly a full week before the storm's projected landfall on Thursday, Sept. 18. On Friday, calls went out to unaffected states, lining up a seamless supply of food, water, and volunteers ready to pour into the disaster area. On Saturday, state relief directors within the hurricane's path reported on their preparedness levels and their likely needs.
On Monday, with Isabel still more than 1,000 miles out to sea, state directors up and down the East Coast participated in a conference call to spin a series of "what-if" scenarios for the next few days. North Carolina, they agreed, was best prepared to deal with the disaster. Years of experience have honed the state's disaster response mechanisms, and the Outer Banks help to protect the mainland from the huge wall of seawater that typically rushes inland ahead of a hurricane.
The more northerly track was the biggest fear. Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic states have little experience with direct-hit hurricanes, and the Chesapeake Bay provides an inland channel that could keep the storm from breaking up quickly. A turn up the Bay would produce a storm surge with dangerous flooding in population centers from Norfolk to Baltimore.
Because of Isabel's massive size, the hurricane watchers agreed to a new strategy: Instead of picking a single staging area very near the storm's point of impact, they would mobilize at three separate points in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, providing relief up and down the coast. Mr. Henderson and his national team would head to Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday, but that was still three days away, and there was plenty of planning yet to be done.
With a strategy in place, the focus turned to implementation on Tuesday-48 hours before landfall. Phone calls flew between other relief organizations like the Salvation Army and Samaritan's Purse, working out the details of who would provide what, and where. The details are mind-boggling: From chaplains to chainsaws to childcare, the organizations have to ensure the necessities of life after a disaster.
Working with the Red Cross, the Baptist group agreed to provide the first round of emergency food rations in Isabel's wake. Calls went out on Tuesday from Atlanta to the states, urging them to have their food delivered while weather conditions still allowed. Each of the three states planned to move 5,000 to 8,000 meals into position on tractor-trailer rigs, enough for two days of feeding in a typical disaster. If the recovery is prolonged, the NAMB has 91 mobile kitchens available, each with a capacity of up to 25,000 meals a day.
On Wednesday, with fewer than 24 hours until landfall, state disaster relief headquarters kicked into high gear. In Columbia, S.C., state director Cliff Satterwhite was relieved that his state's churches would be on the giving end-not the receiving end-of relief efforts this time. "We're just a sending state," he said, looking over a map with 37 red flags representing the relief units he had at his disposal. "People want to help people because they've been helped before. It's a reciprocal ministry."
Although South Carolina represented the southern front in the Baptists' relief effort, help was expected from as far away as Florida and Louisiana. Teams from those states planned to stop in Columbia to rest and refuel en route to the hardest-hit areas. "We've got plenty of cots and we have showers no one in here even knows about," Mr. Satterwhite said.
On this final day of calm before the storm, Mr. Satterwhite was planning how best to deploy his volunteer troops. His 37 units are trained in a variety of specialties, including child care, communications, food, shelter, and water. "They're made up of 75-year-old men, 55-year-old women, 18-year-old boys," Mr. Satterwhite explained. "Everyone-they just have to be trained." Local churches recruit and train volunteers throughout the year, ready for deployment in just such a case.
The work is hardly glamorous. Recovery units, the most numerous of the disaster-relief teams, specialize in using chainsaws and shovels to remove fallen timber and tons of debris. After checking in with local officials, they'll be assigned to cut up trees that have fallen on houses and dig out basements that have been choked with mud. It's a grueling job in a tough environment, and Mr. Satterwhite worried about exhausting too many of his volunteers.
"I don't want to send all three feeding teams out because what happens if we get another hurricane in the next six weeks? I don't want to wear them out."
As the clock ticked down on Wednesday, Mr. Satterwhite scribbled on a series of wall posters like a general mapping his war plan. The North Spartan Unit, a feeding unit from upstate South Carolina near the North Carolina line, should be the first team deployed, he decided. Their assignment will last five days: one for travel, three for work, and a final day for the trip home. On Day 4, a relief team from the same unit will take over, working side-by-side with the veterans for a day before taking over entirely. If the relief effort drags on, another unit from the town of Fort Mill will be waiting in the wings, ready for a five-day stint of their own.
Given the chaos that follows a hurricane, Baptist relief officials have tried to pre-plan as many details as possible. With data gleaned from questionnaires filled out by thousands of churches, state directors like Mr. Satterwhite know exactly how many cots, brooms, and wheelchairs they can count on immediately in any given town. Church vans and buses are standing by to shuttle volunteers to the emergency sites, and local congregations have already volunteered their facilities to house and feed the homeless. Even the childcare volunteers have been prescreened and their references triple-checked.
Still, as the clouds thickened over the Carolinas Wednesday evening and waves began lashing the coast, Mr. Satterwhite couldn't say just when, where, or how many of his 1,200 volunteers might be deployed this time around. All the planning, all the training, all the gaming, and still it comes down to a single dark and windy night.
And even when it's over-after the floods recede and the rebuilding is well underway-when Isabel is on the record books and the homeless are back in their own beds, Mr. Satterwhite and his co-workers will be digesting the lessons of this storm and preparing for the next. Isabel slowed down, after all, but the next one might not. Somewhere off the coast of Africa, the perfect weather conditions could spawn the perfect storm and propel it along a collision course with the East Coast. For relief groups like the North American Mission Board, it's a possibility that's never far off the radar screen.
-with reporting by John Dawson in Atlanta and Columbia, S.C.