Opinion

Gustav's no Katrina, and thank goodness

If there can be any good news from a hurricane that left an estimated 1.4 million households without power and killed more than 100 people in the Caribbean, as well as seven in Louisiana, then the good news from Hurricane Gustav is that it wasn't worse.

Gustav arrived almost three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, killing 1,800 people. This time people all along the Gulf Coast heeded evacuation orders. This time governments provided rides and clear instructions and safe shelters for low-income residents lacking cars to drive away in or the means to find shelter on their own. This time hospital and nursing home patients were taken out of the city days in advance.

Yet the fact that New Orleans survived, and that damages weren't on the scale of Katrina, shouldn't lead coastal residents and governments to grow complacent. That was one of the problems that contributed to the Katrina catastrophe. After a series of hurricanes hadn't caused major damage in New Orleans, there was plenty of political and business pressure not to order mandatory evacuations. City, state and federal governments hadn't organized or prepared for orderly evacuations or emergency services.

On the Carolinas coast, the same pattern developed during the 1970s and 1980s, when hurricanes hit but didn't cause widespread destruction. As memories of the powerful storms of the 1950s and '60s dimmed, coastal construction boomed on fragile barrier islands. More residents began trying to ride out the storms at home.

Then came Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which tore across Charleston and nearby Isle of Palms, ripped north through South Carolina and across Charlotte and the N.C. Piedmont, killing 29 people and causing almost $6 billion in damage.

Eastern North Carolina had its turn with Hurricane Floyd in 1999, which brought devastating floods, killed 49 people, destroyed 6,000 homes and left more than $6 billion in damage.

Today, tropical storm Hanna is roiling the Caribbean, expected to hit the U.S. as a hurricane sometime Friday near the Georgia-S.C. border. Storms Ike and Josephine are right behind it.

Nowadays coastal residents – memories of Floyd and Hugo still sharp – are more inclined to take seriously orders to get out. Governments are better prepared. Those habits must continue, even if this year's hurricanes prove – like Gustav – less horrific than others. When dealing with hurricanes, it's not just wind and water that can kill. Complacency can, too.

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