Fleeing residents ask: Why did we leave?

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The Independent Online
THE STREETS of this elegant Georgia city, which had feared it would be in the centre of Hurricane Floyd, were reverting to normal yesterday as residents drove back from temporary shelters hundreds of miles away. As they returned to a city that had apparently suffered little damage, some were asking: why did we leave?

Some properties were seriously damaged as trees fell and power was intermittentbut the city came through largely intact. Branches were cleared off the streets and those who spent the night indoors fearing the worst emerged to a spectacular day of bright sunshine. Many held parties to celebrate Floyd's arrival, and the worst casualties seemed to be the people with hangovers.

Nearly three million people were evacuated, the largest exodus in US history, on a vast stretch of coastline more than 1,000 miles long. Roads were jammed for hours from Florida to Virginia, and some people spent the night in their cars on the road. Others drove for 12 hours on journeys that would normally take three.

In the end, there were no casualties in Georgia, a handful in North Carolina, and the damage was much less than expected. But the evacuations continued up the coast as far as New York City.

In Savannah, 60 per cent of the population left. It was asked why the rest stayed when the warnings were so severe? They included a message from President Bill Clinton, who flew back from an Asian summit in New Zealand. "I hope that every citizen will heed the warnings of the officials and the recommendations to take every action to protect their families and stay out of harms way," he said.

By persuading people to move hundreds of miles to storm shelters, the authorities believe that they have helped curb the risk to life.

The last time a major hurricane struck Savannah a century ago more than 2,000 died. The worst hurricane hit Galveston in Texas in 1900 and killed more than 8,000 people. But officials emphasise that hurricane watching is a very inexact science.

Hurricane Floyd, which was the biggest storm in decades seen in the Atlantic, had moderated by the time it struck land and had fallen from a category five hurricane, with winds of over 160mph, to a category two hurricane. It also turned north earlier than expected, sparing Florida and Georgia its full force. Had it continued on the course expected, it would have struck Georgia on Wednesday with massive force. It takes a day to evacuate a place the size of Savannah, and in that time the storm was already moving track.

Had the evacuation been cancelled or foreshortened, it would have caused further chaos; and there was no way of knowing that the storm would not shift its course again.

Privately, emergency officials in Savannah admit that they are worried that complacency will be the result of Hurricane Floyd: people will assume that they can sit the next one out. But the next one may be the one that hits.