WASHINGTON — HURRICANE Opal, its winds howling at 144 m.p.h., raced toward the Florida coast with all the trappings of a disaster: surging surf, tornadoes, driving rain.
Yet Opal's landfall brought far less death and destruction than it threatened. A web of evacuation plans and warning systems spun by state and federal officials held the death toll to two.
As the nation copes with one of its worst hurricane seasons ever, the lessons offered by Opal show how far the US has come in its ability to track storms and mobilize mass populations.
On the Gulf Coast, all hurricanes are measured by the standard of Camille, which shredded buildings and killed 256 people in 1969 with winds near 200 m.p.h.
Wade Guice, a civil defense coordinator in Gulfport, Miss., says it's unlikely that another hurricane could cause the same loss of life as Camille because back then, there were no mandatory evacuation procedures. ''If we had those procedures back then,'' Mr, Guice says, ''some of my friends would still be alive.''
Yet some of the credit for the preparation goes to residents themselves, who have long since discarded any cavalier attitude toward hurricanes. Evacuation orders sent residents and tourists in the coastal regions of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi flocking to highways Wednesday in advance of Opal. By mid-afternoon, hotels and even campgrounds were booked for miles inland.
In Meridian, Miss., Red Cross worker Dorothy Reeves says shelters were as packed as she had ever seen them. One who fled, Pensacola, Fla., resident David Moore says his decision to evacuate was driven largely by his experience in hurricane Erin, which hammered the Florida panhandle in August.
''It scared me,'' he says. ''There were tons of downed trees, and it did $40,000 in damage to the golf course where I work. We just finished cleaning up from that.''
Other emergency officials say that in previous decades, relief efforts were not as swift or generously funded. As a result, many people in the path of hurricanes were more concerned with protecting their homes and businesses. Shelters and emergency plans were not nearly as well coordinated.
BUT the decline in casualty rates in hurricanes owes much to improvements in forecasting technology. In June, the National Weather Service (NWS) inaugurated a new computer model that represents a marked improvement over its predecessors, says Stephen Lord, deputy chief of the National Meteorological Center's development division.
The model involves a complex series of equations developed by scientists and managed by a supercomputer.
As a hurricane develops, experts measure factors such as the motion of the atmosphere, evaporation rates off the sea's surface, and amounts of solar radiation, and cloud cover. After plugging these data into the computer, scientists receive a detailed forecast in 20 minutes.
In trial runs last year, developers discovered that the new model was 8 to 10 percent more accurate in short term forecasting and up to 35 percent more accurate in predicting weather patterns over periods longer than 24 hours.
''The new model is about more than just science and technology,'' says Ron McPherson, director of the NWS's National Centers for Environmental Protection. ''This translates directly into saving lives and property and millions of dollars in evacuation costs.''
Dr. Lord says researchers hope to get another 20 percent improvement in the new model by fielding an advanced jet that can fly at the cloudtops of storms, up to 40,000 feet, providing more-accurate readings of key conditions that drive the systems. Current turboprop hurricane hunter planes can't fly any higher than 21,000 feet.
The improvements in forecasting technology could not have come at a better time. With nine hurricanes and six tropical storms already, this hurricane season ranks as the busiest since 1933, when 21 storms pounded the American coast.
To complicate matters, this week emergency planners had to face unusual circumstances. Not only did hurricane Opal grow rapidly in strength and speed in a matter of hours, but it also caught the media and the public in a distracted state. Randee Exler, an NWS spokeswoman, explains ''This storm came on very fast and strong. On Wednesday, we thought it might be as deadly as Camille.''
BECAUSE of all the attention focused on the O.J. Simpson trial verdict and the fact that the hurricane was striking on the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur, Ms. Exler says officials were concerned that news and warnings would go unheeded.
The NWS made a special effort to contact media outlets in all cities in Opal's path, she says, to make sure they redoubled their publicity efforts.
''The evacuations went well,'' she says. ''With our modernized weather systems and our evacuation plans we've been able to increase our lead times. That has absolutely saved lives.''
Radio stations throughout Mississippi and Alabama spoke of the generosity of residents, many of whom opened up their homes to stranded travelers.
One apartment complex in Meridian opened 18 empty apartments to house evacuees. ''I must have given directions to just about everybody in Florida,'' says Craig Taylor of WJDQ, a country radio station in Meridian.