In the course of a weekend, Katrina morphed from a baby hurricane into a monster. And watching it bulk up — as if on steroids — from southern Florida to Louisiana proved once again that surviving a hurricane has much to do with location and luck. But just as critical as any factor is simply taking the storm seriously.
Last Thursday afternoon, in Broward County, Fla., I stood one block from the beach, watching tourists shop and the locals sip draft beer under gusty darkening skies.
The only thing out of the ordinary was that Katrina, then a Category 1 hurricane, was due to make landfall in that general area in just a couple hours. And they couldn't say it was some big secret. Front page headlines screamed Katrina's arrival. On local TV and radio stations, the warnings to seek cover were constant.
There are holdouts in every hurricane. And you would think that Floridians, of all people, would know better. But some of them living directly in the storm's path were hurricane snobs. They thought Katrina was "only" a Category 1 storm, hardly worth evacuating for or paying more than passing attention.
Sure enough, Katrina struck southern Florida harder than anyone expected. Seven Floridians were killed, most of them people who ignored warnings to take shelter. Two of those killed even tried to ride out the storm on their docked boats. Boca Raton was under a mandatory evacuation order but police weren't enforcing it.
One family of five was lost at sea for a day because they set out in their 24-foot boat and headed into Katrina's path. The Coast Guard finally plucked them to safety. The mayor of Deerfield Beach, Fla. told me that during Katrina's landfall, her 911 center took many calls from panicky people. Right as Katrina's eye was passing over the area, some of them had decided to go out to dinner. They ended up on a terrifying drive, pleading for help.
In Louisiana on Sunday, the response was very different. People in New Orleans were genuinely alarmed by Katrina's growth and approach, and its imminent encore landfall. Their community also looked like the hurricane's bulls-eye. And, by then, Katrina looked much more ominous.
Mid-morning on Sunday, the order went out — get out. Get out now. It was the first city-wide mandatory order to evacuate in the city's history. Police enforced it.
By Sunday afternoon, downtown New Orleans — normally Party Central — was deserted. Only a handful of homeless stragglers, drunk and indifferent, were out and about along the city's Riverwalk. I asked them if they had a place to stay or needed some help. They shrugged, "no thanks."
But the vast majority of people hit the road to higher, dryer, safer ground. The traffic jam I saw inching along I-10 westbound to Baton Rouge testified to a much more mature respect for a gathering menace.
In Louisiana, it's still too early to tell the full scope of Katrina's impact in both damage dollars and deaths. But as one local official said before the storm struck land, "the die-hards will die hard."