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As Hurricane Floyd Approaches, Record Number of People Moved

By Sue Anne Pressley
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Hurricane Floyd may be remembered for this benchmark if nothing else: the historic number of people it sent packing.

As it 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 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. They said it was too soon to calculate 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 for delays Tuesday in opening all lanes of jammed Interstate 26 to westbound traffic as frustrated evacuees crept away to safety.

Hodges’ press secretary, Nina Brook, said the frustration is understandable, and that the lanes-reversal and other streamlining measures will be quicker next time. In a Thursday teleconference with emergency officials and other governors, 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 lanes were shifted eastbound Thursday as officials turned to the next task: getting everyone back home. “Traffic is slow,” Brook said, “but at least it’s moving.”