Lessons after three hurricanes

Damage from Ivan is widespread, but softened by warnings, evacuations, and preparatory effort.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The hurricane some have called "Ivan the Terrible" could have been a lot more terrible.

In what is becoming the year of the hurricane, weather forecasters, emergency management officials, and increasingly savvy coastal residents are making the most of valuable lessons learned from earlier natural disasters. Such experience and know-how is helping to reduce the level of death and destruction, even in the face of massive storms.

Although hurricane Ivan has caused at least a dozen US deaths, widespread damage along the Gulf Coast, and may still flood large sections of the Southeast, many residents took actions that greatly improved their chances of surviving the storm and reducing its impact.

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Among the most important lessons learned from earlier storms is the need for accurate hurricane forecasts and early warning to allow residents in the most endangered areas to evacuate.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami projected several days ago that the storm would make landfall near the Florida-Alabama border. That gave emergency-management officials enough time to order an evacuation of low-lying areas - including the city of New Orleans.

The order sparked huge traffic tie-ups on major highways and loud complaints from motorists. But because the order was given early enough, roads and highways were clear well before severe weather arrived in the region.

Hurricane experts cite another key lesson from earlier storms - the need for coordination between local, state, and national emergency-management officials.

"One of the great success stories of disaster preparedness and mitigation is the effort of the federal government regarding hurricanes," says Benigno Aguirre, a sociology professor and fellow at the Disaster Research Center in Newark, Del.

"The awareness of the state and their willingness to work is a tremendous improvement" in the past decade, he says.

"Of course, when you have this kind of situation where you have a huge storm that takes up the entire Gulf of Mexico, it's very difficult for any kind of administration or government to do a perfect job. But [the evacuation effort] is just an indication of this hard work."

In concert with evacuation orders, coastal communities set up emergency shelters to encourage residents in dangerous areas or risky structures to leave for a safer place. Some 26,000 residents on Florida's panhandle spent the night in specially designated hurricane shelters.

From an emergency-management perspective, that is 26,000 individuals who will not be the focus of search-and-rescue operations in flooded and collapsed buildings. Another lesson also spreading with each new hurricane is the need to cover windows with either storm shutters or plywood. The same long lines that emerged outside hardware stores before hurricanes Charley and Frances in Florida also emerged across the Gulf Coast prior to Ivan. Some residents and many business owners also used sandbags to help keep storm water at bay.

Hurricane Ivan made landfall around 2 a.m. Thursday near Gulf Shores, Ala., packing 130 mile-per-hour sustained winds. Nearby Pensacola, Fla., reported a six-foot storm surge that was still rising.

"This is the worst storm since Frederick, no doubt about it," says Dan Rutledge, editor of the Baldwin Times weekly newspaper in Bay Minette, Ala. "It will take some time for things to get back to anything resembling normal around here."

Mr. Rutledge says he is worried about whether Gulf Coast Newspapers will be able to publish this week and next.

More than 660,000 people in the coastal regions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are without power - roughly half of them in Florida's panhandle. While New Orleans was spared, much of the Gulf Coast and Florida's panhandle took a pounding from strong winds, towering waves, and tornadoes.

It marks the third time since mid-August that Florida residents have been hard hit by a hurricane. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sought to reassure storm victims that the state had the necessary resources to deal with the disaster. "Be assured there will be tremendous support on the way," he said in a press conference.

In a scenario that is becoming all too familiar, Governor Bush announced the deployment of a small army of relief and recovery workers. More than 2,000 Florida National Guard troops are being deployed. In hard-hit neighborhoods, rescue teams are working their way through downed trees and high water in house-to-house searches for anyone trapped.

The sheer size of the storm meant that regardless of where the storm struck, the entire region would be affected.

Luann Rutledge, a schoolteacher in Mobile who lives in Stockton, Ala., north of Mobile Bay, said they were fortunate. "We didn't really get so much rain, just a lot of wind," she said. "The power lines are down. There are a lot of trees down. We don't have water right now, and we couldn't get out of our street if we wanted to."

For the first time, Alabama reversed its interstates, and millions took the opportunity to flee north, to friends and motels, camping out even sometimes on very high ground. Hotels as far away as Asheville, N.C., saw bumps from the storms, and sleepy roadside motels from Birmingham to Selma were full of activity.

For businesses, hurricane preparedness has also improved. A small bank in Jackson, Miss., with branches all over the bays and flats of the Gulf Coast, took pains to ensure customers could use ATMs after the storm. Another, a carpet manufacturer in the area, shipped much of its business to an inland plant. In many banks and telecommunications firms, workers weathered the storm inside corporate bunkers, trying to keep the lights on and the telecom wires humming.

"My personal emergency plan has me reaching out and communicating with my parents and my wife's parents, but businesses have to do the same thing on a larger scale," says Michael Jennings, a vice president at Strohl Systems, a consulting firm in King of Prussia, Pa.

Glynn Wilson in Stockton, Ala., and Patrik Jonsson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.

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