Lessons of Ivan paid off for residents in hurricane Dennis

Days before hurricane Dennis pounded into Pensacola, Gulf Coast residents from Alabama to Florida were boarding up windows, packing cars, and heading north.

Most said the memories were far too fresh from the last bruising hurricane to hit the area, just 10 months ago. So this time, more people took the advice of state and local officials and left their homes. Shelters were packed. Hotels were sold out. Evacuation routes were crowded.

This responsiveness, coupled with some cooperation from nature, made the start to this year's hurricane season far less dramatic than it could have been. Indeed, the Southeastern United States has become like a fifth-grade class that has gone through multiple fire drills. In this case, of course, they weren't drills: The damage from last year's unprecedented barrage of hurricanes was painfully real.

But the lessons learned helped towns and residents cope this week with Dennis, which was the first major hurricane in recorded history to hit the US in July. Now authorities are hoping the same savvy that helped the region survive last year - albeit warily - will contribute to a quicker recovery this time, too.

"The more frequently a place has to deal with hurricanes, the more the location develops a hurricane culture, which includes institutional adjustments as well as individual awareness," says Jay Baker, a geography professor at Florida State University who studies human responses to environmental hazards.

Certainly there is plenty of cleanup to do. Brandishing winds of 120 miles per hour, Dennis inflicted considerable damage, even though it was far less destructive than hurricane Ivan that shouldered its way through the same area last year.

By early Monday, more than 500,000 people in three states were without power. Floodwaters inundated small towns - most notably the tiny fishing village of St. Marks near Tallahassee. Along the coast, roadways were transformed into rivers.

Still, the wreckage was far less than many were expecting as recently as two days ago. Only a couple of immediate deaths were attributed to the storm - this from a hurricane that caused 32 fatalities while blustering its way through Cuba and Haiti last week.

Relatively little structural damage was reported. Initial estimates place the destruction from Dennis at $1 billion to $2.5 billion - a considerable amount but far less than Ivan, which caused $14 billion in damage and killed 25 people.

Less of a footprint

One reason for the lesser losses was the weather itself. Dennis bypassed major cities, like Pensacola, and moved through more rural areas. It was also a much smaller storm than Ivan, even though both were Category 3 hurricanes, and moved through the region more quickly.

Yet the responsiveness of local residents was also a reason the region survived as well as it did. Calls for evacuation came more quickly this time, bridges closed sooner, and residents evacuated faster. Few seemed inclined to take any chances.

"We have never left our home in a hurricane before. But after Ivan last year, we just grabbed the house insurance policy and drove north," says Jennifer Chester, whose family has been camped out in a Mobile, Ala., elementary school since early Sunday morning.

This was also the first evacuation for retirees Lloyd and Phyllis Adams, who were reclining on plastic lounge chairs nearby and clutching a large radio. "Ivan was a terribly frightening experience," says Mr. Adams. "We didn't want to go through something like that again. I think we are finally learning our lesson."

The Adams's were among the hundreds weathering the storm in elementary schools around Mobile. Sixty miles away in Pensacola, thousands who could not leave the Florida beach community crowded into shelters around town. In fact, roughly 1 in 4 Pensacola residents evacuated.

"We are in a lot better shape than we were 10 months ago," said an Escambia County law-enforcement official at a briefing to assess the initial hurricane damage around Pensacola.

All along the coastline, public officials and emergency personnel were praising each other and residents for being better prepared this time.

For one thing, emergency relief was lined up before Dennis even hit. Officials were particularly careful to stockpile emergency water and ice, shortages of which plagued last year's hurricane recovery efforts. Homeowners, too, brought out the plywood and nail guns more quickly.

"This time we secured the house better and left sooner," said Francisco Mendez, placing his 6-month-old daughter in the back seat as they prepared to leave the crowded Pensacola Civic Center early Monday and return home. "Hurricane Ivan was really scary. We didn't want to take any chances, especially with the baby."

Authorities and residents alike are hoping the cleanup this time around will be quicker as well. Carolyn and Anthony Gant were wasting no time. A few hours after Dennis swept ashore, sending tree branches flying and downing power lines, the couple was out in their Pensacola yard raking up leaves and other debris.

"This was nothing compared to Ivan," says Mrs. Gant, pushing her fisherman's cap back on her head. During Ivan, the couple lost the roof of their house. After Dennis, just a few branches littered their yard, though their power was still off.

Oyster beds take a hit

Other impacts will take much longer to overcome - and will affect the rhythms of daily life more. Alabama oyster fishermen, for instance, have been unable to replant the region's battered reefs with young oyster spats to replace the 80 percent losses that Ivan wrought.

Many oystermen are now considering foregoing some of the fecund fishing grounds around Mobile Bay and off Cedar Point for shallower - and more protected - reefs around Heron Bay.

"We're trying to learn from our mistakes" says Avery Bates, an oyster tonger in Bayou La Batre, Ala. "Even if an area has been protected historically, if you suddenly realize it's going to be impacted again and again, then you're not spending your money wisely by planting there."

Many residents agree they'll adapt - and stay put. While cleaning up her yard in Pensacola, Mrs. Gant looked across the street at her neighbors barbequing ribs on the front porch and reflected on her childhood home. "We'll never leave," she says, "no matter how bad things get."

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.

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