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Thread: How an illegal immigration issue is highlighting coastal Alabama's hurricane evacuati

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    Super Moderator Newmexican's Avatar
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    How an illegal immigration issue is highlighting coastal Alabama's hurricane evacuati

    How an illegal immigration issue is highlighting coastal Alabama's hurricane evacuation concerns

    After Hurricane Ivan in 2004, southbound traffic on Alabama 59 backed up as residents waited to enter Gulf Shores to check on their property. (file photo)

    By John Sharp
    on July 12, 2016 at 6:24 AM, updated July 12, 2016 at 7:18 AM

    When it came to stepping away from Baldwin County as a possible location to house thousands of undocumented youths who entered the U.S. illegally, the federal government didn't wince over politics.

    Nor did it mention concerns about safety, or the stern message from county commissioners: You're not welcome.

    The major concern from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cited in an email to County Commissioner Chris Elliott, was hurricanes.

    And while county officials are feeling a sense of relief that the immigrant housing issue appears to be dead -- at least during hurricane season from June 1 to Nov. 30 -- the federal wariness underscores worries long expressed by local EMA leaders: As Baldwin booms, how can it be efficiently evacuated in the face of a looming Ivan, Camille or Katrina?

    "It's a challenge and it's one we deal with on a daily basis in the emergency management field," Elliott said.

    'Woefully inadequate'

    In Baldwin County, roadways have become considerably more overtaxed than in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan smashed in to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, blasting toward Pensacola.

    At the time, 156,701 people called Baldwin County home. Last year, 203,709 people did so, a 30 percent increase, most living south of Interstate 10.

    Baldwin is the state's fastest-growing county, but it's added only new corridor road leading in and out of the coastal region: The Baldwin Beach Express. And even that road is incomplete as it doesn't run all the way northward to Interstate 65. The Beach Express ends at I-10, which is clogged with traffic during peak traveling hours.

    "Our evacuation system, right now, is woefully inadequate," said Stephen Picou, a professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama, who also oversees the Coastal Resource & Resiliency Center. "We need to extend our highways up to I-65. The bottlenecks that ensure if you head west or north are very predictable and apparent."

    Keith Blackwell, associate professor of meteorology at the University of South Alabama, who lives in Silverhill, recalls that ahead of Ivan's landfall in 2004, roads leading away from the coast were jammed bumper-to-bumper.

    "With vehicles pulling all sorts of trailers and boats and RVs, the amount of traffic congestion between Gulf Shores and I-10 was absolutely amazing," Blackwell said. "Ivan was well-forecasted and its threat was known well ahead of time. If you had another situation where you have a storm where the forecasts are not as good and it developed quickly in the Gulf of Mexico prior to landfall, you'd have tremendous issues."
    Mass chaos ahead of a storm is nothing new. In September 2005, about one month after Hurricane Katrina's devastating trail along the Gulf Coast, a mass evacuation out of Houston led to 24-hour gridlock ahead of Hurricane Rita's landfall. Closer to Alabama, drivers clogged roads in the Florida Panhandle in 1995 as Hurricane Opal rapidly gained strength before making landfall at a Category 3 storm east of Pensacola Beach. Opal caused nine U.S. deaths.

    "The evacuation routes ... everyone left at the same time," said Blackwell. "Everyone was in panic. It was choked up. It was a terrible situation with Opal moving at a forward speed and had Opal not weakened, and there was no guarantee it would, there would've been a lot more (fatalities). Certainly, it would've been a lot worse."

    Picou said that even a well-planned 72-hour evacuation is fraught with confusion for those who are fleeing: "It requires you to do a lot of things – board up your house, gather important documents, make plans for where you are going to evacuate to."

    The "notoriously unpredictable" nature of hurricanes is what makes planning for them difficult, Blackwell said. "The overnight surprise ... it's just something that keeps a lot of emergency planners, I'm sure, up at night," he said.

    'Harm's way'

    In Baldwin County, cities like Gulf Shores defer to the county's Emergency Management Agency which coordinates its evacuation program with the Alabama State Department of Emergency Management.

    Reggie Chitwood, the director of Baldwin's EMA, said the county follows a blueprint designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that involves tracking a storm's wind speed and movement. The information is analyzed based on the population density of the predicted landfall areas.

    "It tells us when we need to start or stop and evacuation. But if it told us to start in the middle of the night at midnight or 1 o'clock, we'd start at the daylight hours and start the evacuations at 6 a.m.," Chitwood said. "It just depends on all of the factors that come with the storm."

    But alleviating a traffic bottleneck during a mandatory evacuation will be difficult, he said.

    And adding to the problem is the large number of hurricane newbies. "We have approximately 59,000 new residents who have not experienced a tropic storm or a hurricane. We are on a social media program to get the word out and try to reach as many as we can, particularly our new residents. And we encourage new residents to talk to our residents who have experienced a tropical storm or hurricane," he said.

    Adding an extra 2,000 immigrant youths from two resettlement camps would further complicate the issue, Chitwood added. HHS was considering two old Naval airfields in south Baldwin for the resettlement housing, one at Silverhill and one near Orange Beach only a few miles from the coast.

    "It would be a burden," Chitwood said. "We don't want to put anyone in harm's way. To bring a contingent in and set that up and have a storm come in and then have to move everyone out of here, it's an increase burden to the taxpayers and everyone involved."

    The two airfields are in remote locations, and have minimal existing infrastructure. Among the questions that county commissioners forwarded to HHS was whether the temporary resettlement housing would meet wind load requirements.

    Also, Elliott said that the Silverhill airfield is a potential emergency management staging area for the National Guard , utility companies and relief agencies in the event of hurricane.

    HHS has established temporary housing for immigrant youths in Florida's hurricane zone, at Homestead, which is where the devastating Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992.

    But in Homestead, unlike Baldwin County, federal officials are housing the immigrant youths inside permanent buildings at a former Job Corps site. The complex has buildings which can sleep and feed 800 youths. Tents are erected nearby that house bathroom, laundry and other facilities.
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    Send them back to their own Country!

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