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Lesson from Andrew: Improve evacuation plans

South Florida did a good job of evacuating people before Hurricane Andrew, emergency officials were told Monday, but they must improve their plans to deal with stronger storms and shorter warning periods.

"There are lessons here for all of America," Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay told federal, state and local officials at a meeting to review the lessons of Andrew.

"It's clear that a lot of our emergency preparedness wasn't drafted or thought through to meet the extent of this thing," MacKay said. "It's clear we've got a lot of rethinking to do.

"We're not interested in your finding blame," said MacKay. "We're interested in your finding facts."

Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida Aug. 24 and caused an estimated $20-billion in damage.

Gov. Lawton Chiles created the panel about three weeks after the storm to "evaluate current state and local statutes, plans and programs for natural and manmade disasters, and to make recommendations for improvements to the governor and the Legislature."

Bob Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center, and Kate Hale, director of Dade County's emergency office, praised the evacuation carried out from the Florida Keys north through Dade County.

"What we did was the result of about 10 years' work," Sheets said. "I looked at the response, and it was outstanding."

Various official estimates have said as many as 750,000 people headed north out of Dade and Monroe counties in the Keys in the hours before Andrew hit land.

Hale echoed the praise, also noting years of warning people about the importance of evacuation.

"The evacuation came off very successfully," Hale said. "Of course, over the past four years, we've talked to anyone who would listen during hurricane season _ morning, noon and night."

Both Hale and Sheets, however, warned that planning must be continually perfected and preparations completed to avoid potential confusion, and resultant loss of life, if the region were to face a more powerful hurricane or get less notice of a storm's arrival.

Dade County alone has more than 350,000 people over the age of 65, Hale said, and 78 percent of that older population lives in evacuation areas.

Emergency planners, Sheets said, must expect no more than 24 hours' lead time to get the area evacuated and battened down.

"We know we cannot provide 70 hours of lead time. We know we cannot provide 50 hours of lead time," Sheets said.

In Andrew's case, he said, the system was way out in the Atlantic on the Friday before the storm hit. "It was little more than a tropical storm, at that point," he said.

And it was just two and a half days from hitting Florida, even though that Friday afternoon, there was only a 7 percent probability of Andrew coming ashore anywhere in Florida.

Sheets noted that storm surge, the rapid rise in sea level within the radius of a hurricane, normally is responsible for 90 percent of hurricane deaths.

But in Andrew's case, the storm's small radius, its rapid forward speed and its path over south Dade County contributed to little noticeable flooding.

But there was a 16.9-foot storm surge near a public park called the Charles Deering Estate, he said.

Jim Towey of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services also pointed to a need for better evacuation planning for thousands of residents, not including hospital patients, with special needs.

"We need the Red Cross to be able to give us a complete list of their shelters. For about a week (after Andrew), the Red Cross couldn't tell us which shelters were up, which shelters were down," Towey said.