If for nothing else, Hurricane Floyd may be remembered for this benchmark: the historic number of people it sent packing.
As the storm plowed up the southeast coast, 1.3 million Floridians were ordered to leave, followed shortly by 500,000 Georgia residents, all 800,000 residents of the South Carolina coast, and 500,000 more in North Carolina. Still others living in its path farther north were bound to follow suit.
The shoreline emptied. And nearly everyone except police officers, jail inmates and the sickest of hospital patients seemed to be on the road to Anywhere to Get Away From Floyd. They were anxious and reluctant participants in what federal officials have termed the largest mass evacuation in the nation's history.
Overall, the exodus drew praise from emergency officials, who said it acted almost as a test of how smoothly the detailed evacuation plans devised by various state and local governments could work, and how swiftly residents could marshal themselves when faced with a monstrous natural phenomenon that seemed headed for their doorsteps. They said it was too soon to calculate the economic losses from shuttered factories, canceled airline flights and deserted tourist attractions.
Travelers grumbled about their interminable journeys, however, complaining it took 14 hours, in some cases, to reach havens that were normally a four-hour drive away. Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley publicly criticized South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges (D) for delays Tuesday in opening all lanes of jammed Interstate 26 to westbound traffic as frustrated evacuees tried to creep away to safety.
Hodge's press secretary Nina Brook said that the frustration of Riley and motorists was understandable, and that the lanes-reversal and other streamlining measures will take place quicker next time. In a teleconference with emergency officials and other governors yesterday, Hodges discussed how the interstate system was overburdened as evacuees from Florida and Georgia streamed north in search of safer ground and what could be done to relieve the problem.
All lanes on Interstate 26 were shifted eastbound yesterday, as officials turned to how to get everyone back home. "Traffic is slow," Brook said, "but at least it's moving."
Given the circumstances, that had to be a more pleasant trip than Tuesday's nerve-racking exodus.
"Overall, we've never moved so many people so far with so few problems," said David Bruns, a spokesman for the Florida Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. "It was astonishing it went as well as it did, but of course, you probably didn't feel that way if you were sitting in a car for hours."
The approaching storm -- and all the attendant publicity about its size and onetime might -- apparently spurred even some of the most diehard anti-evacuees to rethink their usual hurricane strategies and run.
The results were awesome as caravans of families with small children and unhappy pets inched along jammed interstates; motels filled up so quickly that rumors spread that the nearest empty rooms were in Tennessee; and impromptu shelters at churches and volunteer fire departments welcomed overnight guests who were too tired to keep going and too scared to stay put.
The American Red Cross housed 101,512 people Wednesday night in its 456 shelters in six states, one of its largest crowds ever, said spokesman Darren Irby. Five shelters had to be opened in unaffected Alabama to handle overflow crowds, and several others in Tennessee, he said.
At a news conference yesterday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he announced the release of another $528 million to aid hurricane victims, President Clinton praised the effort, and said no one should doubt the reasoning behind the evacuations or fail to comply with future orders to seek shelter.
"I'm sure there will be those who second-guess this now, because Florida was not hit and we moved a lot of people out," Clinton said. "The storm wasn't as bad as we thought. But we now have the technology that imposes on us the responsibility of telling people what we think is going to happen, and there is no question that because we can do this now, thousands . . . of lives will be saved."
Many evacuees admitted they were spurred on by past news reports, and in many cases personal memories, of what it was like to weather a major hurricane. In Florida, where the specter of disastrous Hurricane Andrew in 1992 still looms large, police in some cases estimated that 90 percent of residents had heeded the call to leave, an unprecedented number, Bruns said.
"We didn't have people knocking on doors to see who stayed," he said. "But Andrew had a tremendous emotional impact on the people of Florida, and after that, Floridians were not in the mood to take hurricanes lightly anymore. At one point, Floyd was 140 miles from our coast."
Not everyone had the luxury of getting away. The 1,250 inmates at the Chatham County Jail in Savannah, Ga., were almost unnaturally quiet as the giant storm roared their way, sheriff's Capt. John Wilcher said, but their silence was not strictly necessary. Hardly anyone was left in town to hear them.
"Myself, if I wasn't in this position, I would've been packing my stuff," Wilcher said yesterday. "It was not a question of being scared, it was a question of being smart. When you have a storm as wide as the states of Alabama and Georgia put together, that's not something you want to stay behind and look at."
Other residents who failed to leave had to answer to another force of nature.
"We delivered three babies," said Melissa Allen, spokesperson for St. Joseph's/Candler Health System in Savannah. "And I couldn't understand it -- none of them was named Floyd!"
Florida: About 1.3 million were urged to evacuate but were allowed to return home Wednesday.
Georgia: Six coastal counties -- about 500,000 people -- were under mandatory evacuation order Wednesday but were allowed to return yesterday. An estimated 60 percent of residents, or 300,000 people, heeded the evacuation order.
South Carolina: An estimated 532,000 people left by early Wednesday on order of Gov. Jim Hodges.
An estimated 800,000 residents live in the area that Hodges ordered evacuated Tuesday.
North Carolina: At least 20,000 fled when evacuation orders were issued for Outer Banks, a 130-mile stretch of barrier islands, and other areas.
Virginia: Evacuations were ordered in the counties of Accomack, Gloucester, Lancaster, Mathews, Middlesex, Northampton, Northumberland, Richmond, Westmoreland and York.
Maryland: Residents of several islands in the Chesapeake Bay were ordered to evacuate or were under voluntary evacuations.
SOURCE: Staff reports and Associated Press