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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 / September 17, 2004

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

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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.

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.