Cover Story

READY OR NOT

COVER STORY: Even as Isabel lost some of her fearful momentum before slamming into the East Coast, disaster-relief teams stepped up their intensity in the days before landfall. A look at how one of the largest church-based relief efforts prepared to mobilize help where it was needed most

Issue: "Isabel's slow march," Sept. 27, 2003

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.

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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.

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