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Workshop plots state's response to massive storm

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — A Category 5 hurricane swept across a projection screen in a Montgomery hotel during a mock disaster Monday, its path crossing most of the state.

The storm, with 160 mph sustained winds, made landfall at Bayou La Batre, near Mobile, then moved north to Decatur and Huntsville.

Bayou La Batre sustained heavy damage in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina, which went on to devastate New Orleans and much of the Mississippi and Louisiana coast.

Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall near New Orleans.

Planners predict that a storm like the one in Monday's simulation could leave between 30,000 and 35,000 people homeless.

"We do not know if this will be a good year or a bad year for hurricanes until NOAA puts out the big picture in its annual hurricane prediction in May," said Rick Knabb, senior forecaster with the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "But now is the time to prepare. It just takes one bad storm to make a bad season for you."

The mock disaster took place during the governor's Hurricane Workshop. State and federal emergency-response officials studied Alabama's disaster-response plan and helped formulate how the state should respond in the days and weeks afterward.

If such a storm hit, few if any areas of the state would escape without damage, Knabb said.

"Alabama has been praised for our response to earlier hurricanes, but we can always learn lessons and make improvements to our plans," Gov. Bob Riley said.

"We're bringing all the key leaders together again to make sure our state is as prepared as we possibly can be for what is predicted to be an active hurricane season."

The most powerful storm to strike Alabama was a Category 3 hurricane, Riley said.

Alabama Emergency Management Agency Director Bruce Baughman said that in such a storm, North Alabama could have power outages lasting up to a week, fuel shortages, wind damage and storm debris. North Alabama also would receive evacuees needing food, shelter, long-term housing and other assistance.

Riley said the state needs fuel that first responders can get to those in need.

He said the state may rent a tank to store up to 100,000 gallons of gasoline for such a purpose.

He said other proposals include pre-existing contracts with debris removal services before storms strike and establishing routes that use school buses to transport people to emergency shelters.

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