The growing number of year-round residents in Delaware’s southern coastal communities has state officials concerned about evacuation plans for hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Officials previously have estimated that evacuating in the face of an oncoming hurricane could take 24 to 36 hours, and that tourists who flock to beach towns in the summer would simply go home.
During the summer beach season, Sussex County’s population swells from about 170,000 to 263,000. Planning to evacuate tens of thousands of tourists as well as the year-round residents has always posed difficulties, given that there are few ways off the Delmarva Peninsula and that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, crossed by hundreds of thousands of vehicles on summer weekends, likely would be closed during a storm.
But as more baby boomers and older retirees settle in the region, officials are rethinking how and when people should evacuate the peninsula.
Officials fear that year-round residents such as Ed Rames of Lewes, who said he and his wife would “probably stay right where we are,” will be less likely to follow evacuation instructions, leaving more people at risk in case of disaster.
“That’s going to be the biggest challenge; to get people to leave,” said Dave Hake, with the Delaware Emergency Management Agency.
Jim Falk of the University of Delaware Sea Grant Program studied population trends in the area and found that growth along the oceanfront grew 59 percent between 1990 and 2000, with the biggest population surges south of the Indian River Inlet. Falk also found that people living in the resort area tend to be older, with 35 percent of the population in the oceanfront communities 65 years old or older, compared to 13 percent nationwide.
“It concerns me that there are so few roads to get out. There are not many choices” said Ann Lyn Milan, a senior citizen from Lewes who said she likely would stay with a sister in Virginia if told to evacuate.
It’s not just a shift in the population that’s making life difficult for planners. The old cues for when to evacuate, recommendations from weather forecasters on when or where a storm would strike, are changing, too.
Transportation officials now realize that people need to evacuate before winds reach sustained speeds of 40 mph, said Gene Donaldson of the state Transportation Management Center. Once winds are blowing at 40 mph, that likely means there are gusts of up to 70 mph. At that point, emergency personnel will be hunkered down and off the road.
Donaldson said that when he talks to community groups about storm readiness and evacuation plans, he asks people where they will go if told to evacuate.
“People move here and haven’t been through a hurricane,” said Juanita Morch, executive director of the Cape Henlopen Senior Center. “It just doesn’t seem to sink in.”
Delaware has never taken a direct hit from a hurricane but nevertheless remains a target during hurricane season, which traditionally runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
Earlier this month, Colorado State University hurricane researcher William Gray lowered his 2007 forecast from 17 named storms and nine hurricanes off the East and Gulf coasts to 15 named storms and eight hurricanes. Gray predicts that four of the hurricanes will be intense.
On the Net:
Delaware Emergency Management Agency: http://dema.delaware.gov
Information from: The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal, http://www.delawareonline.com
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