Hurricane Elena left only four dead in its erratic wake, partly because of the high technology developed to track hurricanes and partly because of the deep respect developed for killer storms by residents of "Hurricane Alley."
Hurricane Betsy, similarly indecisive, killed 75 people in 1965 when it started and stopped, backtracked and stalled before slamming into Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1969, when many residents refused to leave, Hurricane Camille killed more than 250 people in the same states with winds ranging unexpectedly as high as 200 mph.
"Elena was tracked as well as any hurricane in history," Dr. Robert C. Sheets, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center outside Miami, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "What's also happened in the last few years is that people living along the Gulf of Mexico have become aware of their vulnerability to these storms."
The governors of four states persuaded 1.5 million people to move out of harm's way -- some of them twice -- as Elena made 10 unpredictable turns in its five days in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The bottom line is that there was minimum life lost, but we're not pleased about the first evacuation notice we gave out," Sheets said. "The trouble is, before it made that turn to the right Friday , Elena was headed right toward New Orleans, and we know it takes a long time to evacuate New Orleans, so we had no choice but to call that one when we did."
Eastern New Orleans and the southern end of Plaquemines Parish (county), La., were evacuated Thursday as Hurricane Elena, newly upgraded from a tropical storm, moved north-northwest in the Gulf of Mexico. About 125,000 residents fled the Gulf Coast from Morgan, La., to Apalachicola in the Florida Panhandle, many returning home when Elena churned east Friday and stalled for two days off Florida's west-central coast.
On Friday, Florida Gov. Robert Graham ordered mandatory evacuation of coastal areas from Taylor County southwest of Tallahassee to Sarasota County south of St. Petersburg and most people took the order seriously. As one temporary shelter resident put it, "I've seen two before . . . . and now when they tell me to go, I go."
Elena headed west again Sunday, and the hurricane warning shifted back to the Gulf Coast as far as Grand Isle, La. Civil defense officials in Harrison County, Miss., where the storm finally came ashore, had high praise for the timeliness and accuracy of both warnings.
"We started getting notices when it was still a tropical depression off Cuba . . ., " said Webb Lee, a member of the county's emergency task force. Lee said the Mississippi beaches were crowded Saturday and Sunday until Elena began to double back.
"We met on Sunday with all the mayors in the county, and we had everyone that lived below the 10-foot above sea-level line out by Sunday night," Lee said, adding that Mississippians learned their lesson during Camille, when some diehards even held hurricane parties on the beach.
Thereafter, he said, the legislature gave local officials authority to make evacuation mandatory "and we're not hesitant about using it."
Lee said Elena's landfall, at Gulfport and Biloxi, "could have been worse . . . . It could have stalled off the coast and beat us to death instead of . . . diminishing as soon as it hit land. We'd have had more damage, but we wouldn't have had any deaths because of the warning."
The deaths occurred in Florida -- one man killed in Daytona Beach by a falling limb and two residents dead of heart attacks in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area -- and at sea, where a sailor aboard the M.V. Ambassador was crushed between two loose trailers on the container ship.
The way the National Hurricane Center calls its hurricane forecasts today is a far cry from the past. The National Weather Service now has radar weather stations at Tampa, Apalachicola and Pensacola in Florida, Mobile, Ala., and Slidell, La., north of New Orleans.
"We now have dial-up capability with these radar stations for the first time," said Sheets, adding that he can obtain information from "any of these radars and put it on my screen and watch it as the storm is moving."
The hurricane center also has two aircraft, fitted with the latest electronic weather investigating equipment, that fly into a hurricane any time one approaches either coast of Florida. The center's fleet is supplemented by nine Air Force C130s at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi which fly into Gulf Coast hurricanes.
The aircraft send information on wind strength, air temperature and barometric pressure to a satellite that relays it immediately to the hurricane center.
A geosynchronous orbiting earth satellite (GOES) hovers over the equator above South America and feeds continuous pictures of any storm approaching the United States from the Atlantic Ocean. A European weather satellite called Meteosat over the equator above Africa also provides pictures of tropical storms as they form off the African coast.
"We were able to pick up Elena when she started moving real fast away from Africa," Sheets said. "We had this hurricane right in our sights from the very beginning."
Sheets said he had only two regrets about the center's coverage of Hurricane Elena. One of the center's aircraft developed mechanical trouble that kept it grounded for about three hours as the storm approached. And the center had to rely on a single American satellite for pictures of Elena, since one lost its ability to take pictures last year.
Sheets said he is most proud of the pilots who flew what seemed like endless missions into the hurricane's eye.
"It seemed like one of the planes was landing and the other one was taking off," Sheets said. "We were turning those two planes around like a one-armed paperhanger."