Across the Gulf coast, as the powerful storm approached, the reaction was swift and orderly. Tens of thousands left the Florida Keys for higher ground. Days later, 450,000 people fled Louisiana, packing hotels and shelters as far away as Arkansas and Tennessee.
Evacuations like this have always been the ultimate test of government services, requiring accurate weather projections, ample warning, clear roads, and public cooperation. But many experts say the reaction to Georges and other hurricanes this year shows that states, counties, and relief groups are getting better at moving citizens out of harm's way.
"We're much better informed than we used to be about hurricanes and storm surges, and emergency-management people are more confident with making calls to evacuate," says Carl Ruch, an urban planner at Texas A&M University in College Station. "It's taken 20 years, with storms along the entire Gulf coast and Atlantic, but it's starting to pay off."
Some experts say the turning point in America's response to hurricanes came with Andrew, the 1992 storm that leveled the towns around Homestead, Fla. Now, during one of the most active hurricane seasons on record, officials have taken a more proactive approach, planning better evacuation routes and making sure that neighboring counties are prepared to deal with a flood of evacuees when storms come.
"The key is communication: If all these people, from the National Guard to the county sheriffs, don't start talking together before disaster hits, then all the best plans aren't going to do any good," says Mary Ann Rollans, a dean who set up the emergency-management program at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. "It takes all the things that go into hindsight, and looking at them before hurricanes strike."
Florida motto: be prepared
Perhaps the leader in hurricane preparedness is the Sunshine State, Florida, which also has the distinction of being the most hurricane-prone state in the US. State officials arrange conference calls with counties long before a storm comes knocking. During these calls, evacuation routes are planned from county to county, and hotels and shelters are designated statewide.
"Everybody puts their boundaries and egos away and gets behind the same cart and starts pushing," says Steve Decker, director of emergency management for the Florida Department of Transportation. One reason that Florida has seen no loss of life, he adds, unlike in hurricane Andrew, is that county officials all saw that their common responsibility was to preserve lives.
Certainly, one of the greatest challenges for local officials and private relief groups is knowing when to call for an evacuation, and how to avoid crying wolf.
"With a storm like this, you can never have 100 percent good information," says Renita Hosler, member of the rapid-response team for the American Red Cross, at a shelter in Mobile, Ala., one of 500 the group has set up in the wake of Georges. "But you can provide people with the best information available so they can make an informed decision."
In Alabama, Gov. Fob James ordered mandatory evacuation Sept. 27 for Dauphin Island and other coastal towns.
Some 3,000 residents sought safety in shelters in Mobile as of Sept. 28, even though the storm struck farther west in Gulfport, Miss., and seemed to be bringing more rain than wind. Like many residents, Leslie Eschette simply battened down her home and stayed put. A main impetus to stay was her horses, who could not be easily moved in the storm.
"I have too much invested in my animals and my property to leave," she explained.
New Orleans's near miss
Further to the west, New Orleans residents are breathing a collective sigh of relief as the storm spared this city that lies some five feet below sea level, protected by a complex series of levees. Even so, tens of thousands voluntarily evacuated over the weekend, driving out the city's two main escape routes, Interstate 10 and US Highway 90. Both roads are flooded, and the New Orleans airport is closed.
City officials say the public has been calm and cooperative throughout the ordeal, as 14,000 residents have taken shelter in the Superdome.
"This was by far the largest organized evacuation in the city of New Orleans," says a spokesman for Mayor Marc Morial.
Among those who left town was Eleanor Singer, who booked a Memphis hotel room for her family. "Georges was being compared to hurricane Betsy, which nailed the city in 1965," she says. "There's no way I was going through that again."
But Tracy Parrott, who lives in Metairie, says she never considered leaving. "When Betsy hit, we did not have the extensive levee system or pumping systems we have now." she says. "I never thought the storm would be that big a deal," an estimation that proved correct, at least for New Orleans.
* Jyl C. Benson in New Orleans and Carolyn Haines in Mobile, Ala. contributed to this report.