Hurricane: When the Big One Hits
Aired June 8, 2002 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The eye of the storm is going to be passing less than 40 miles above you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Heads up.
JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When the big one is bearing down on you...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is going to be one of the big natural disasters in our nation's history.
ZARRELLA: ... what will you do? Pack up the family, the pets, and head for a shelter? Will you be trapped in gridlock? What if your evacuation route is cut off? If you stay to ride out the storm, will you live to cry about it? Do you have any idea absolute terror you will experience?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You ever heard the devil breathing down your neck? We had the devil here.
ZARRELLA: And the devil is coming again, perhaps sooner than you think.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AARON BROWN, HOST: Welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. Hurricanes to those paid to think about such things are technically speaking heat engines fueled by warm, moist air in tropical oceans.
And that's enough technical talk. To experience a hurricane, and we've lived through our share, is to understand with almost perfect clarity the power of nature and the limits of man. And right now, we are living in an era where major hurricanes are becoming more frequent, and our coastal regions are becoming more populated, more vulnerable. It's an equation for disaster. And we enter yet another Atlantic hurricane season now. Will we be prepared when the big one hits?
Here's CNN's John Zarrella.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) WALTER MAYSTREE, EMERGENCY MANAGER: People have to realize the power, the absolute brute power, of one of these storms. And if you haven't ever experienced it, you haven't ever seen it, there is no way for you to understand what you are really dealing with.
ZARRELLA: The year 1995, when storms were lined up like box cars across the Atlantic, marked the return to a period of more hurricanes -- and the doubling of major hurricanes, hurricanes like Mitch in 1998. Its floods and mudslides killed 9,000 people in Central America. And if scientists are right, $30 billion hurricane Andrew may soon lose its title as the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.
CHRIS LANDSEA, NOAA SCIENTIST: I think we will see a $50 billion hurricane in the next 10-20 years, it's almost without a doubt.
ZARRELLA: The increase in hurricanes, many scientist say, is caused by peiodic shifts in the climate. The main culprit is an increase of ocean temperature of a mere half a degree.
LANDSEA: A half a degree swing either way doesn't sound like much, but a hurricane is essentially a heat engine, and the more energy input, the stronger the hurricane has the potential to become.
ZARRELLA: This increased threat, the experts say, is likely to be with us for the next 10 to 40 years.
MAX MAYFIELD, DIR., NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER, MIAMI: There are a lot of reasons why I think we can still have a disaster from a hurricane in the United States.
ZARRELLA: Max Mayfield directs the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
MAYFIELD: It could be a bad forecast. It could be a late evacuation order, it could just be a simple matter of people not having a hurricane plan.
ZARRELLA: From a squat, concrete, stormproof building, Mayfield oversees a team of hurricane forecasters.
Every year from June to November, they watch, wait.
And perhaps most of all, they worry they will be caught off guard --ambushed, as they were by hurricane Keith. In a mere 12 hours, it exploded from a relatively weak hurricane into a brute killer, as it slammed into Belize and Central America.
MAYFIELD: If that had happened anywhere along the United States coastline, it would have been a disaster. Luckily it's not a very populated area. If that had happened in the United States, we'd likely be testifying before Congress.
ZARRELLA: Forecasters can track a tropical storm across the ocean.
They can tell when it grows into a hurricane.
(on camera): But two of the most critical questions, questions that may mean the difference between saving thousands of lives or losing them, they simply can't answer with confidence.
Where exactly is the hurricane going? And how powerful will it be when it gets there?
(voice-over): Every year, forecasters watch the drama play out in the Gulf of Mexico.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Teh aircraft now tells us that not only do we have winds that are hurricane-strenth to the east of the center...
ZARRELLA: This is Gordon, a tropical storm getting its act together. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are still expecting that the primary impact from the hurricane will be anywhere from Appalachicola, Florida, around southward to at least Tampa.
ZARRELLA: But beyond that 400-mile guestimate, there was little certainly. Would Gordon stay weak, a category one or two storm? Or would it intensify into a major hurricane, category three, four, or five? Winds 110 miles an hour, or more.
MAYFIELD: Every time we sat down to make a forecast, we tried to make a perfect forcast. We know we can't do that. The atmosphere is very complex, we are doing the best we can with the materials that we have, and we are getting better, but we still have those limitations.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Florence is moving toward the northeast near 36 miles per hour.
ZARRELLA: Forecasts are based on data from an array of high technology. Weather satellites show hurricanes as they fluctuate in strength and size.
Specially equipped planes, hurricane hunters, fly into the storm sending back information on wind speed and barometric pressure. Their data is fed into several mathematical equations that compute the future path and intensity of the storms. The problem is the computer models rarely agree, leaving forecasters to make their best guess.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So the experts here at the National Hurricane Center, the first to admit that forecasting is an inexact science.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stand by: Three, two, one.
MAYFIELD: Good evening, this is the 5:00 p.m. update on tropical storm Gordon.
ZARRELLA: Just a few hours before making landfall, Gordon falls apart.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just been downgraded from a hurricane. But even false alarms become a dress rehearsal for the big one.
STANLEY GOLDENBERG, NOAA SCIENTIST: There is bound to be a major city impacted. And we could be talking about a real disaster of epic proportions on our hands.
ZARRELLA: And when it hits, the cost will be enormous. The value of coastal properties is at least $6.4 trillion, up sixfold in the last 20 years.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are losing battle with development of the coastline. As I fly along the coastline of the Gulf and the Atlantic coast of the United States and see the developments right up to the water's edge there, I just shake my head.
ZARRELLA: Eighty-three million of us live on or near the coast between Maine and Texas. And because so much of population growth has occurred while big storms were relatively rare, the National Hurricane Center estimates that 85 percent of the people in potential danger have never experienced the full brunt of a big one.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These people do not really know what a major hurricane can do, and that really concerns me.
ZARRELLA: Coming up, what to do with all the people, and what do they do if the only roads out of town are blocked.
ZARRELLA: The Florida Keys, the southernmost be point of continental United States. Bathed in natural beauty and dotted with wildlife preserves. Eighty-thousand people call it home; 15,000 more visit on a busy summer weekend.
And if the big one is coming, only two roads lead to safety.
It's August 22, 2000, and Hurricane Debbie is just north of Puerto Rico. It's close enough that Billy Wagner (ph) is worried. He's the emergency manager for Monroe County, the Florida Keys. He's come to the National Hurricane Center in Miami for the latest information.
BILLY WAGNER, MONROE COUNTY EMERGENCY MANAGER: See, I've got to worry about the southwest quarter.
ZARRELLA: The forecast is for Debbie to strengthen and take aim at South Florida. Some computer models say the Keys are a likely target in about three days. But with only two roads out of the Keys, Wagner needs more than 36 hours to evacuate.
But how much time? If he waits, Debbie might strengthen.
BILLY WAGNER, EMERGENCY MANAGER, FLORIDA KEYES: Of course, there's -- the category increase of four and five. I can assure you if these people won't get out we're going to lose thousands of them.
ZARRELLA: Within minutes Wagner learns evacuation is not possible. Both roads are blocked.
WAGNER: I have a jackknifed truck on Card Sound and a tanker truck that they've got to drill holes in to offload the fuel on U.S.- 1.
ZARRELLA: There's no way out to the mainland.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Boy, you ought to take pictures of this. We have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) evacuation. This would be the nightmare. This would be the real nightmare.
ZARRELLA: The next day, after the roads have been cleared, Wagner orders a phase one evacuation: Tourists and nonresidents. But within a couple hours of his decision, Hurricane Debbie, despite forecasts that it would strengthen, begins to fall apart. Wagner ends up taking a lot of heat. His decision hurt tourism. Would he do it again?
WAGNER: Absolutely. We'll do exactly the same, because our plans and procedures call for an evacuation at certain time frames. When we hit that threshold, then we make the decision and implement it.
ZARRELLA (on camera): Even in places where there are more than two roads out, emergency managers are deathly afraid of storm surge. Storm surge is a wall of water sometimes 50, even 100 miles long, and perhaps 20 feet high. It sweeps inland as the eye of a hurricane makes landfall.
(voice-over): But since the average error for tracking hurricanes is 100 miles, no one knows where the worst storm surge will hit.
BOB SHEETS, FORMER DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Again, in 24 hours, I can't tell if it's going to hit here, or here, or down here somewhere.
ZARRELLA: That's why emergency managers have to over-evacuate.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As (UNINTELLIGIBLE) moves slowly in from the Gulf, high winds herald the approach of gales up to 170 miles an hour.
ZARRELLA: A generation ago, the system actually worked pretty well.
SHEETS: Back in the '40s and '50s and '60s, if we gave people 12 hours of warnings, that was sufficient.
ZARRELLA: Bob Sheets is a former director of the National Hurricane Center.
SHEETS: All you did was protected your property in some way, board it up if you had that. And you could do that almost in any community along our coastline.
ZARRELLA: Not anymore. The coastal building boom has dramatically altered what was a simple equation. Since 1950, the population of coastal counties has doubled. With more people come more cars, often more than the roads can handle.
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd moved north along the Atlantic Coast, and triggered the largest evacuation in the nation's history. From Florida to the Carolinas, millions left their homes, only to be trapped in gridlock.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's taken us four and a half hours to go eight miles.
ZARRELLA: Many were people who weren't asked or ordered to leave, but were afraid to stay. They added to the bumper-to-bumper mess.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've never seen this happen before. Our lives is (sic) at stake, and then this has to happen. Why?
ZARRELLA: Floyd weakened before striking land.
Next time might be different.
MAYFIELD: I really fear that some day we're going to have people stuck in their cars in a gridlock as the core of a major hurricane moves onshore. If they're stuck in their car and that storm surge comes in, there will be loss of life from drowning.
ZARRELLA: With so many people trying to flee, some experts say mass evacuation has become more of a problem than a solution.
SHEETS: We've done, in my opinion, done too much evacuation and are doing too much evacuation.
ZARRELLA: Some experts say we could cut down on evacuation gridlock by including storm-proof shelters in new developments.
SHEETS: Every new community that goes up, whenever you give it the permitting process for this development, they ought to be required to have a shelter right on the site.
ZARRELLA: But right now, many people have to rely on big government buildings for shelters, usually schools.
When we come back, why many of those shelters may not be safe.
ZARRELLA: 80-year-old Kaye Cole and her neighbor, 78-year-old Brownie Jordan, live in a mobile home park in Pasco County on Florida's West Coast. Their lightweight houses are vulnerable to the wind of even the weakest hurricane.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now, this is where Brownie lives, right here.
BROWNIE JORDAN, RETIRED STEEL WORKER: Now, if this starts to go, forget it, because these tin cans are gone. You aren't going to save any of them.
ZARRELLA: That's why their community and dozens like that are mandatory evacuation zones. But where should they go? Kaye, a retired nurse from New York, lives alone. There is no one to turn to for help, if she has to evacuate.
(on camera): Do you have friends you can go to that have a brick house somewhere?
KAY COLE, RETIRED NURSE: No, I'm down here, I have a cousin that lives here in the park. That's the only relative I have down here.
ZARRELLA (voice-over): Brownie is a tough old Pennsylvania steel worker. He isn't worried about himself; his soft spot is for Abby (ph). They've been married for 56 years.
JORDAN: I have got a wife with a heart condition. I want to find a place that she's going to be safe, if I can.
ZARRELLA: For a safe haven, they look to the county's emergency manager, Michelle Baker, but she has little to offer.
MICHELLE BAKER, PASCO COUNTY EMERGENCY MANAGER: When people ask me, is Pasco County prepared for a hurricane, I say no.
ZARRELLA: How could a community so vulnerable to hurricanes be unprepared?
(on camera): In Pasco County and just about any place in the hurricane belt, schools are typically used as shelters, but there is a problem. Emergency managers are discovering that many of the schools they relied on may not be as safe as they thought. As a result, there is a deficit. Too many people, not enough shelters.
(voice-over): Questions about safety began in 1985, after Hurricane Elena hit the Gulf Coast. Several shelters were damaged.
At one school, 400 people had to be rescued by Marines in armored personnel carriers. There were more shelter problems in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina. Storm surge flooded a school, forcing more than 200 people to stand chest deep in water or scramble on the tables for safety. And in 1998, at least two more shelters were damaged in Mississippi, when Hurricane George tore through the region.
PETER SPARKS, CIVIL ENGINEER: There are big buildings, they are not necessarily solid buildings.
ZARRELLA: Professor Peter Sparks, a civil engineer, has studied the use of schools as shelters.
SPARKS: A lot of these schools are just a set of parts that have been put together in the hope that they will form a satisfactory structural system. They are not designed as emergency shelters.
ZARRELLA: Most shelters are selected by local emergency managers, but staffed by volunteers from the American Red Cross, the federally-chartered relief agency. Now, in a change of policy, the Red Cross says it will not staff shelters that fail its new strict safety standards.
JOHN CLIZBE, AMERICAN RED CROSS: By making it clear that we aren't going to manage that shelter or staff it, it's a way of both keeping our own people safe or communicating to the community that we don't believe it is a safe place to be.
ZARRELLA: When inspectors applied the Red Cross standards in Pasco County, most of the shelters, schools that are safe in normal weather, flunked the test. Walls not reinforced with steel. Windows and doors vulnerable to wind.
ZARRELLA (on camera): Is it a liability concern?
BAKER: If the state said it wasn't safe and my contractor said it wasn't safe and we made the decision to open the shelter, I believe we would be liable.
ZARRELLA (voice-over): One of the shelters scratched off the list is Zepper Hills (ph) high school. This is where Kaye, Brownie, his wife Abby (ph) and their neighbors in the mobile home park were supposed to go. Not anymore.
JORDAN: You bet it concerns me, because we were feeling that that was like a secure place, and it isn't far. It would take only a short time to get there.
ZARRELLA: Without Zepper Hills (ph), they might have to drive to another shelter, 25 miles away on a two-lane road.
COLE: There is no way we'd get out there. And by the time we got out there, it would be full.
ZARRELLA (on camera): So, what are you going to do?
COLE: I'm going nowhere. I am going to take my chances. I got nothing else to do.
JORDAN: If I get trapped here, the first thing I do is go back to my house. I have a ditch, and that would be better than the house.
ZARRELLA: What happens to this population that you have that refuses to leave?
BAKER: They die, and that's the bottom line.
ZARRELLA (voice-over): But how safe are people in shelters? This test at Clemson University's engineering department demonstrates how hurricane winds can turn ordinary debris into guided missiles, and it shows what it takes to protect the shelter's windows and doors. Half-inch strand board is nothing. Five-eighth inch plywood is stronger, but not strong enough.
It takes an inch of plywood, or its equivalent, to be safe. BAKER: Here we have these nice wide open corridors.
ZARRELLA: As an alternative to boarding up windows and doors, Michelle Baker is scrambling for money to install special screens, strong enough to repel wind-blown debris.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is designed to take back tens of thousands of pounds of pressure.
ZARRELLA: With adequate protection, some of the schools can again be used as shelters. But until that's done, Baker says she has no alternative now but to take a chance with unapproved buildings staffed as best she can with county workers. It's safer, she believes, than having people tough it out at home when the big one hits.
BAKER: They've got to evacuate when we are talking about a major hurricane. There is no ifs, ands or buts. Their lives are literally at stake.
ZARRELLA: Coming up: What is it worth to protect New Orleans? The federal agency that would foot the bill doesn't know.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's because no one has effectively given me a cost or value of a human life.
ZARRELLA (voice-over): New Orleans is home to some of the best music, best food, and best parties in the country. But it is one of the worst places in the country to be if a major hurricane hits.
WALTER MAYSTREE, JEFFERSON PARISH EMERGENCY MANAGER: We're really talking about potential catastrophe.
ZARRELLA: Walter Maystree is the emergency manager for Jefferson Parish, a New Orleans suburb equally vulnerable to hurricanes.
MAYSTREE: We pray it doesn't happen. You know, we're the one government agency in the world that gets to pray a lot.
ZARRELLA: His apocalyptic vision is a region without clean water or a working sewer system for months; electricity gone. From the bayous, alligators blown into the streets. From the coastal wetlands, nutria: 20-pound rodents. And worst of all: The stench of death.
(on camera): Tell me it's not true the numbers we've heard -- 20,000, 30,000, maybe -- conservative estimates of the death toll you could have in New Orleans.
MAYSTREE: I wish I could tell you that. I can't. You know, realistically there is the potential for that kind of catastrophic loss of life.
ZARRELLA (voice-over): New Orleans is at risk because the city is below sea level; a bowl with water on three sides: The Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. In a major hurricane, the storm surge could be higher than the levees and floodwalls that surround the city.
MAYSTREE: If a storm comes along and tops them, then we create instead of Lake Ponchartrain, Lake New Orleans.
KING (on camera): So just how high could the water get? This quiet, tree-lined neighborhood sits on the lowest ground in New Orleans, some 10 feet below sea level. Emergency managers say the storm surge from a big hurricane would submerge all the one-story houses, and quite possibly all the two-story homes as well.
(voice-over): The best defense is mass evacuation. But emergency managers know thousands of people cannot, or will not, leave.
76-year-old Walter Beckham (ph) doesn't own a car.
(on camera): What if they said you had to leave the city?
WALTER BECKHAM: I don't know. Go somewhere and get in the basement, I guess.
ZARRELLA (voice-over): Others underestimate the danger, like 80- year-old Gordon Laport (ph).
GORDON LAPORT: I got a boat in the backyard. I'd float it, and have it tied on top of my roof as high as I could.
ZARRELLA: People who stay risk drowning. The first 10 feet of water rises quickly.
MAYSTREE: You know, a guy says, well, I'll go into my attic if the water starts to rise. And so he gets to the attic and he can't get out.
ZARRELLA: If the storm comes at night...
MAYSTREE: Many people who chose not leave are going to simply drown in their beds, and never even realize what happened.
ZARRELLA: On weekends, the town is jammed with tourists.
MAYSTREE: Very possible in that scenario that the French Quarter becomes one massive tomb.
ZARRELLA: History has forced New Orleans to try and protect itself. After 1965, when Hurricane Betsy killed 61 people and flooded New Orleans, the Army corps of engineers built hurricane levees and floodwalls. They are high enough for the frequent, relatively small hurricanes, but not high enough for the big ones.
The corps is studying what it would take to raise them. Engineer Al Naomi.
AL NAOMI, ENGINEER: I think it's going to be in the billions; in the billions of dollars. I don't know how much. Depends on the plans we come up with; but it's going to be very expensive.
ZARRELLA: Expensive, and decades away from completion.
JOE BUHEVDA, LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY: We have a potential disaster.
ZARRELLA: That's why coastal oceanographer Joe Buhevda wants a quicker, cheaper solution. He proposes walling off just one-third of the city to create a safe haven.
BUHEVDA: And then unflooded would be this area that would be behind the floodwall.
ZARRELLA: The giant floodwall will run alongside major highways.
(on camera): Everything on that side of wall would be under water. On this side would essentially be a Noah's Ark.
(voice-over): The area would include hospitals, government buildings and the French Quarter. But primarily, it would be a shelter.
BUHEVDA: It is a lower-cost alternative that directly addresses the need to protect people.
ZARRELLA: Traditionally the corps of engineers pays for most of a flood control project if the benefits exceed the cost. And how does the corps measure the benefits? By calculating the value of lost property and commerce. It does not include loss of life.
NAOMI: That's because no one has effectively given me a cost or value of a human life. And until somebody can do that, it's very hard to say -- I mean, one human life lost is too many.
MAYSTREE: Lives have to matter. And to talk about economic befit and not including lives -- individual's lives is ridiculous, because whose economic benefit are we talking about?
ZARRELLA: A decision on what to build and how to pay for it is at least five years away, and will require approval by Congress.
While the chance of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans is only about 3 percent a year, emergency managers worry their luck will run out.
Since 1965, six major hurricanes have come perilously close. New Orleans hasn't dodged a bullet, it's dodged a bomb.
MAYSTREE: One day it's coming. We don't know when, we don't know where, we don't know how, but it's coming.
ZARRELLA: So did Sieur de Bienville, the French explorer who founded the city, make a mistake?
BUHEVDA: Well, from one perspective no, because the city has been here for 250 years and it's a wonderful place. From the perspective of everybody who's got responsibility to deal with hurricanes and emergencies? Absolutely. I'd have a lot more hair if he had gone someplace else.
ZARRELLA: When we come back: Is there a way to take the punch out of nature's most powerful storms?
ZARRELLA: This is how some people think we should get rid of hurricanes. Nuke'em!
HUGH WILLOUGHBY, HURRICANE RESEARCHER: It's a terrible idea.
ZARRELLA: The suggestion comes several times a year, unsolicited, to Hugh Willoughby, director of NOAA's hurricane research division.
WILLOUGHBY: Hurricanes are pretty bad without making them radioactive too.
ZARRELLA: But for decades, scientists have seriously toyed with ways to attack the storms?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE VIDEO")
NARRATOR: Is there a way? Project Storm Fury, a joint venture of NOAA, the Navy and the Air Force is designed to try to find one.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZARRELLA: Project Storm Fury was a bold attempt to find the Achilles' heel in nature's most powerful storm. It was the brain child of Bob Simpson, one of the world's preeminent meteorologists.
BOB SIMPSON, METEOROLOGIST: There was big science and we were applying more resources than had ever been done before.
ZARRELLA: In a hurricane, wind moves counterclockwise, with the strongest wind in the wall of clouds around the eye. The storms behave like a spinning ice skater, the tighter she pulls in, the faster she goes. Storm Fury scientists want to force the eye wall to spread out as a way to slow the spinning winds.
The plan of attack was to seed clouds in the hurricane with silver iodine and force precipitation. Making rain would release heat, which, in turn, might disrupt the flow of wind and call the eye wall to fall apart. If the eye wall reformed with a larger radius, the winds would slow down.
Joe Golden, now a senior government scientist, was a graduate student working with Storm Fury in its early days. He remembers learning from the pilots that the research planes would be pushed to the limit into potential danger.
JOE GOLDEN, FORMER MEMBER OF PROJECT FURY: Do I really want to be here? That's what my reaction was. Do I really want to be here? ZARRELLA: But excitement won out.
GOLDEN: Everybody involved knew that this was -- we were blazing some new trails here. This was cutting edge science.
ZARRELLA: The experiments began in 1961.
SIMPSON: We felt that we had, through the first three to four experiments, gotten very encouraging results.
ZARRELLA: Even a small reduction in wind speed would be significant.
GOLDEN: 10 to 15 percent reduction in wind speed, the damage reduction on that is in the millions of dollars for every hurricane.
ZARRELLA: But the research made officials nervous. What if cloud-heating backfired, caused a hurricane to strengthen?
SIMPSON: After each experiment, we had more and more constraints put on us as to where we could seed.
ZARRELLA: In 1969, the work seemed to pay off. Project Storm Fury seeded a strong hurricane twice. Both times, the eye wall changed, and the wind slowed as much as 30 percent. It was the strongest evidence yet that cloud seeding could work.
SIMPSON: I was overjoyed. I said, now we're ready, we're getting a really clear-cut example of what appears to be a response to the seeding.
ZARRELLA: Bob Sheets, who later directed Storm Fury, says news of the success generated public interest and support.
SHEETS: There was a strong push from people to say, "you must go out and seed a storm if it's heading toward Miami Beach. In fact, you're be in derelict of your duties if you don't."
ZARRELLA: But Storm Fury also had critics. The government of Mexico charged that tempering with hurricanes would deprive Mexican agriculture of rain. Fidel Castro fueled anti-American sentiment with accusations that Storm Fury would divert hurricanes into Cuba. And when Hurricane Fifi hit Honduras, there was immediate suspicion that American research was to blame, a charge that was laid to rest.
SHEETS: Fortunately for us, in 1974, when Fifi occurred, we did no flying into hurricanes, period.
ZARRELLA: There were also challenges to the science of Storm Fury. As researchers learned more about the natural fluctuations of hurricanes, some questioned whether the cloud seeding had any effect. Storm Fury was on the defensive.
SHEETS: What we were never able to document, was it a result of the actual seeding, or was it a natural sequence of events that took place. ZARRELLA: The Storm Fury scientists fought for money year after year, but the combination of concerns over liability, political relations with U.S. neighbors and challenges to the underlying theory were too much. Storm Fury was shut down in 1983, with inconclusive results and with a ripple effect on other research.
SIMPSON: It essentially ended up drying up all government funds for weather modification research, and I think that that was wrong.
ZARRELLA: Now, nearly 20 years later, a report by the National Academy of Sciences says our understanding of weather has improved enough that weather modification research should resume, including hurricanes. The call for government funding raises hopes once again of finding tiny triggers that would make an invincible storm vulnerable.
SIMPSON: I think we should be looking for the small areas where we can make a difference. And in many small individual areas, we may make a lot of differences.
ZARRELLA: When we come back.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The hurricane watch is extended from (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
ZARRELLA: Can experts learn enough to prevent a tragedy, like the 1935 hurricane that claimed hundreds of lives?
ZARRELLA: The most powerful hurricane ever to hit the U.S. mauled the Florida Keys on Labor Day, 1935. Warnings went out and a train from Miami was sent to bring people to the mainland. But the wind, 200 miles an hour, blew the train off its tracks.
WILLOUGHBY: And the train picked the folks up, but never made it back to Miami.
ZARRELLA: No one at the weather bureau predicted how rapidly the storm would intensify. Hundreds of people were washed away and died.
WILLOUGHBY: They didn't have a good idea where it was going the hit, how strong it was going to be, or that all these people were going to die.
ZARRELLA: Hugh Willoughby, who directs NOAH's hurricane research division, says forecasters today are not much better at figuring out which storms will intensify.
WILLOUGHBY: The fact of the matter is, the science is not there to handle these situations.
ZARRELLA: October, 1995, hurricane Opal is in the Gulf of Mexico, a category two storm, relatively weak. WILLOUGHBY: It was a minor hurricane and it was a long ways away. They weren't calling for an evacuation at all. For the media, Opal is barely on the radar. A more exciting story dominates the news.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Simpson, would you please stand and face the jury?
ZARRELLA: The Gulf Coast goes to bed with the acquittal.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not guilty of the crime of murder.
ZARRELLA: It wakes up with a monster storm, almost a category five heading its way.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People did get more or less blindsided by the rapid development of this hurricane overnight.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Massive evacuation of all residences within 500 yards of shore...
ZARRELLA: One hundred thousand people raced to evacuate.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're all in a hurry. It is all bumper to bumper. Everybody is mad at one another. It is a war out there right now.
ZARRELLA: Opal weakens just before landfall. Had it not, some experts envisioned victims trapped on a highway of death.
WILLOUGHBY: Frankly, the failure to forecast rapid intensification is the way the next hurricane catastrophe is going to happen unless we learn how to do it.
ZARRELLA (on camera): Predicting which hurricanes will grow and which will fizzle is one of the big challenges in meteorology.
But many experts say that without increased spending on research, the answers will be hard to find.
(voice-over): They point the hurricane Bret, which hit Texas in 1999. NOAA research planes were in the air just as the storm exploded.
WILLOUGHBY: This is actually the flight track of the airplane. This is good data and a valuable step on the road of understanding what goes in rapid intensification.
ZARRELLA: But two years after the storm, Willoughby's staff is just beginning to analyze the information. The delay, he says, is a result of a budget that has not increased in nearly 20 years.
WILLOUGHBY: We've been losing staff, and a lot of times they were people who were leaders in the organization and not replacing them. ZARRELLA: Many scientists say forecasts will improve when they can improve the mathematical models that run on computers. Money for that effort has also been hard to get. About a year ago four government agencies tried. They proposed a joint effort and a 10 million a year budget increase for 5 years.
The project is entering its second year, getting about one-fourth of what the agencies said they needed.
In contrast, earthquake research gets seven times as much federal money as hurricanes, according to a 1995 study. That's in large part because Congress passed a law that created a stable base of funding to study quakes.
SHEETS: We ought to be able to do that with Texas, and Florida and North Carolina. Those three states ought to be able to put together a similar act for the hurricane program and keep stable funding.
ZARRELLA: But others say a big infusion of research money will only come after a catastrophe.
GRAY: Then money will be thrown at the problem. People will jump to get that money, many with not much background in the field. And the money won't be spent as well.
ZARRELLA: While more accurate forecasts may, some day, provide more credible warnings and limit the economic damage from over evacuating, they will not stop hurricanes. That's why the experts warn, don't wait on science or government. Paradise will never be perfect.
BAKER: Government cannot meet your every need on a daily basis and in a disaster we certainly are not going to be able to.
MAYFIELD: Take that individual responsibility. Develop your own hurricane plan. Know what you're vulnerable to, know exactly what you are going to do the next time a hurricane comes.
ZARRELLA: But to a large degree it's not happening. A Red Cross poll found that 50 percent of people living where hurricanes are most likely to hit, have neither a home disaster supply kit, nor a plan for evacuation.
If there's anything worse than an era of more frequent and more powerful hurricanes, it may be the news that so many of us are not prepared for the big one.
BROWN: Like six of the last seven Atlantic hurricane seasons, this year's expected to be a busy one. Six to eight hurricanes are forecasted, and that would be an above-average season.
But if you're wondering whether the frequency of today's hurricanes has anything to do with global warming -- experts who study hurricane cycles say this is one thing that probably can't be blamed on the greenhouse effect.
That's this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you next week.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com