Taming the fury of the hurricane

Florida has refined its emergency services to an art form. Mary Dejevsky reports on how the Keys survived the worst storm in 40 years
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The Independent Online
RESIDENTS OF Key West and the Lower Florida Keys are clearing up today after their most destructive storm since Donna in 1960, while Hurricane Georges spun north towards Alabama, skimming some of the costliest real estate in Florida.

The low-lying island chain south-west of the mainland had been pummelled for 18 hours by the hurricane, which cut water and power supplies, uprooted trees, tore off roofs and levelled trailer homes.

A long convoy of police and US National Guard vehicles crossed into the Keys early yesterday to co-ordinate the relief effort. But they left behind frustrated evacuees, who were told the safety of roads and security of property had to be ensured first. They cannot return until today. Some feared looters would mingle with them. Only two-thirds of the 80,000 islanders had complied with a mandatory evacuation order, the rest had stayed at their own risk.

There was widespread relief that the hurricane which had torn such a murderous course across the Caribbean had killed no one and caused no serious injuries. Yesterday the Caribbean toll had risen to at least 300 dead.

But Florida has access to the most advanced satellite technology and communications to forecast the weather precisely and broadcast warnings. The Keys have some of the most rigorous building standards in the world. Florida has also had plenty of practice, particularly after Hurricane Andrew six years ago. Even in America, as Andrew demonstrated, the elements can kill.

The response to Georges showed what had been learnt, but also what - in the end - may be impossible to teach. The accuracy of the forecasting generated public confidence, and the experience of Hurricane Andrew convinced many to take evacuation orders seriously. The authorities also learnt that it was unnecessary to evacuate (and so accommodate) those in solid housing.

The victims of Andrew were mostly the poor, in trailer homes crushed by the storm's force. Since then, regulations for new ones have been toughened. In the event, their durability was not tested, but the strict building requirements in the Keys were.

The relatively low level of damage, despite windspeeds of 120 mph, suggests they were vindicated. New houses must conform to wind resistance standards and mostly constructed on stilts, to allow the passage of wind and reduce the risk of flooding.

As with Hurricane Andrew, the authorities used television and radio to inform and to receive information. Free helplines, prominently shown on the screen, served to separate questions and complaints. One called for information about "price-gouging" - providing an outlet for popular discontent as well as information for the authorities.

One of the chief complaints in 1992 was that unscrupulous shopkeepers and contractors elicited huge sums for scarce goods, including such basics as bottled water and plywood (for protecting windows) before the storm, and building materials and services afterwards. A law now sets maximum mark-ups under emer- gency conditions.

There was also a "rumour control line" which invited people to submit rumours for verification, another measure to improve official information and reduce panic. Other lines invited those without transport to register for pick-up to the emergency shelters. The use of different telephone lines was intended to take the heat of the standard 911 emergency number, although overloading on certain lines, especially the transport line, still left people resorting to 911.

Even in the hours before the hurricane struck, television broadcast measures that people could still take to improve their chances. Simple last-minute shopping lists were also broadcast, including bottled water, tinned food and a manual tin-opener, a torch and candles, along with notices about which shops were still open.

Radio and television broadcasts were linked, so people had a source of information even if they lost electric power. And presenters appeared to have been trained to exhibit calmness, although some reporters were over-excited.

The key to minimising injuries and loss of life, according to Jerry Jarrold, head of the Miami-based National Hurricane Centre, is evacuation. The main cause of death, he says, "used to be storm surge, but we've controlled that by doing evacuations".

The Keys, with only one road to the mainland and too low-lying to have effective shelters, present a particular problem, which is overcome by extreme organisation, island by island.

This time, Keys residents were allocated to one huge emergency shelter at Miami International University on the edge of the city and close by the evacuation route, so their arrival did not complicate the evacuation of southern Miami suburbs hours later.

Those more familiar with evacuation or more prepared to spend made hotel reservations. On the inland side of the city hotels were mostly full on the night of the hurricane; those near the shore were closed.

An uneasy camaraderie prevailed, reminiscent, perhaps, of a downmarket cruise ship, with widely different groups thrown together in a comfortable, but confined space. Unfortunately, the mix of German pensioners, displaced Miami Hispanics and disappointed British and American sun-seekers was not the most harmonious.

Culture clashes apart, the evacuation was a success.