America is getting better at responding to large hurricanes.
From food depots in Atlanta to thousands of cots set up in Florida schools to evacuation caravans in South Carolina, millions of residents along the East Coast have taken unprecedented steps to prepare for hurricane Floyd.
As one of the "storms of the century" churned northward up the Eastern Seaboard, it has forced state and local civil-defense officials to contemplate their worst-case scenario - a 600-mile-wide hurricane with relentless winds bearing down on vulnerable coastal cities.
In many instances, early, decisive, and well-coordinated action has helped head off what might have been a much larger tragedy - and carry off, with minimal lapses of patience, the biggest peacetime evacuation in US history.
In addition, residents throughout the Southeast are more aware of hurricanes and what must be done to avoid becoming victims. Awareness, in fact, may turn out to be the best weapon.
"The awareness has been phenomenal," says Iver Duedall, an oceanography professor at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla.
"As long as that awareness continues I think we can live with these natural disasters."
Some of the awareness is driven by a combination of awe, respect, and outright fear. The storm was described early in the week at the National Hurricane Center in Miami as a potential killer. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called it a "monster." And televised radar images gave coastal residents a bird's-eye view of a weather system several times larger than the state of Florida.
Depending on where such a hurricane makes landfall, it could present state and federal officials with their most significant test since hurricane Andrew caused $25 billion in destruction and left 26 dead in south Florida in 1992.
Hurricane Floyd is said to be several times larger and more destructive than Andrew, with hurricane force winds extending 100 miles from the eye of the storm. Such winds are strong enough to snap telephone poles, blow roofs off houses, and push a raging wall of seawater into seaside communities. Once inland, the storm could cause substantial flooding.
The coming storm prompted Orlando-based amusement parks to close down - in Disney World's case, for the first time in its 28 years - and it sent officials at the Kennedy Space Center scrambling for ways to protect its four $2 billion space shuttles in hangars designed to withstand winds of only 105 m.p.h.
The Bahamas took a direct hit from the hurricane, knocking out power and telephone communications. Details of relief efforts there remain sketchy.
Meanwhile, several million coastal residents in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas were evacuated well in advance of the approaching hurricane.
Taking Floyd seriously
Traffic jams on Southeastern highways were evidence that residents were taking Floyd seriously. Despite the inconvenience to motorists, planning helped ease traffic jams well before storm clouds threatened to strand families in their cars.
At the same time, state officials were in early contact with federal relief agencies to ensure the fast flow of emergency supplies and funding. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has stockpiled supplies in Atlanta for quick shipment to needy communities. And on Tuesday, President Clinton had already declared Florida and Georgia federal disaster areas, long before Floyd made landfall in the US.
The fast action contrasts with the sluggish, uncoordinated response of federal authorities following hurricane Andrew in Florida eight years ago. That storm cut a 20-mile-wide swath of destruction across the southern tip of the state, exposing shoddy construction techniques and an emergency bureaucracy overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster.
But lessons learned from hurricanes Andrew and Hugo are helping officials take a more concerted approach to large storms.
After Andrew, for example, south Florida and many other coastal areas adopted more stringent building codes requiring homes built with hurricane shutters that are more likely to stand up to storm winds. Evacuation plans were refined and the system of public hurricane shelters was reexamined to make sure that schools and other public buildings offering refuge to evacuees were as safe as possible.
But experts say much more remains to be done. Questions about affordable home insurance for coastal residents still loom. And officials have yet to seriously address the issue of restricting residential construction in vulnerable coastal regions.
Hurricane forecasters acknowledged last weekend that Floyd might present the first real test of whether tall condominium buildings that now line much of the Florida coast can survive a major hurricane. That test was avoided as the hurricane remained far enough offshore.
One benefit of the storm was the surf. Surfers enjoyed some of the biggest waves of the year. At Dania Beach, south of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Meg Casey stood on the sand and watched her two sons ride waves. "We don't have big waves down here in Florida so these are the biggest waves we get when we have a storm."
To her, hurricanes are just part of living in Florida. "It is nerve-racking, but we live in paradise, so you take the good with the bad. I'd rather live where hurricanes are than where the ground is shaking."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society