Originally created 06/09/01

Floyd evacuation prompts changes



When Hurricane Floyd threatened to pound the Atlantic Coast in 1999, the storm prompted the largest evacuation in American history.

Since then, Georgia officials said they have been processing the lessons they learned from Floyd and will begin implementing those changes this hurricane season, which started June 1.

This week a leading hurricane forecaster released new predictions about how many tropical storms he expects this season, which goes through Nov. 30.

The season peaks in late August, September and early October.

William Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, increased his earlier prediction of 10 named storms this year to 12, including seven hurricanes. Last year, there were 14 named storms, and eight of those became hurricanes.

Mr. Gray also stated in his report that there is a good possibility a hurricane will hit the East Coast this year.

The National Hurricane Center, the federal agency that tracks the storms, predicts a more "normal" hurricane season, bringing eight to 11 tropical storms, with five to seven of those reaching hurricane strength.

"Here I think what's important to emphasize with the number of hurricanes, is it only takes one hurricane to turn your life upside down," said Buzz Weiss, a spokesman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

"Regardless of how many hurricanes are predicted, it's the one that we have to prepare for."

As part of those preparations, the state has made some changes since Floyd.

Those improvements include tapping into the statewide public radio network to get storm information out to the public more quickly, designating certain cities - such as Augusta - as official evacuation centers, and easing traffic congestion along evacuation routes.

Mr. Weiss said about 3.5 million people in the Southeast took to the highways during Floyd to get away from the coast.

"And it seems like everyone of them was on I-16 at some point," he said.

Traffic along the interstate increased 215 percent during the evacuation - and only 45 miles of the four-lane highway was converted to one-way traffic.

Now, Mr. Weiss said, I-16 will become one-way for 125 miles if another evacuation occurs. That would lead from Savannah to Dublin.

The state's Department of Transportation also created changes to the highway median west of Dublin so that motorists can cross over once the road becomes two-way again. Future DOT plans for I-16 include installing videos along the highway to monitor traffic.

DOT spokeswoman Jilayne Jordan said the department has designated more evacuation routes across the state - 14 besides I-16. Signs were erected this year along these roads, which will not become one-way but will be monitored by GEMA and local emergency management agencies.

Although the DOT has had a hurricane evacuation plan in place since 1994, it wasn't until Floyd that DOT officials could see it in action, Ms. Jordan said.

"When we acutely had to use it in 1999, it really gave us firsthand knowledge of what worked and what didn't," she said. "Sometimes, experience is the best teacher."

And Augusta was not immune to those hard lessons, said Richmond County EMA Director David Dlugolenski.

"Every single hotel and motel was filled up, and a lot of the churches were filled," he said. "What people feel is that Augusta is a safe and secure area and it's far enough away from the coast."

During Floyd, the city operated 15 official shelters, Mr. Dlugolenski said. Next time around, he said, the city also will open a pet shelter at the Augusta Exchange Fairgrounds.

Pet shelters are a new aspect of the state's evacuation plans, Mr. Weiss said. The hope, he said, is that people will be more willing to leave their coastal homes if they know they can take their pets with them.

Mr. Dlugolenski said working more closely with other agencies was one of the aspects being stressed in the state and local preparation plans. He said that at the end of June, he plans to meet with representatives of the American Red Cross, law enforcement and EMAs in Richmond and Aiken counties.

"One of the best things we're doing here - and we've never done in the past - is coordinating."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.