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Hurricane evacuees weigh costs of leaving

MOBILE (AP) — Anthony Simon said he took his grandparents, his brother and two nephews and checked into a Huntsville hotel to escape Hurricane Dennis, joining thousands who fled Mobile County under a mandatory evacuation order.

But Simon says he plans to stay closer to home for the next hurricane. If others follow Simon's thinking, the next storm exodus could place more demands on shelters.

"Next time, I'll go to the shelter. It's a lot less expensive," Simon said, pausing during a courthouse errand.

Besides the $100 hotel bill, Simon said traffic and finding gasoline were his main headaches.

July 10 landfall

Dennis was a Category 3 hurricane with 120-mph winds when it arrived July 10 in Florida between Pensacola and Navarre Beach, about 50 miles east of Gulf Shores. It caused little damage on the Alabama coast while downing trees and knocking out power inland.

As state and local officials continue to re-examine response plans before the next storm, transportation officials plan few changes on evacuation routes. Hurricane season runs from June 1 through the end of November.

Baldwin County order

Besides Mobile County's evacuation for Dennis, parts of Baldwin County south of Interstate 10 also were under a mandatory evacuation order, which allowed police to arrest people refusing to leave. Officials had no accurate estimate of the number of evacuees.

A spokesman for the Department of Transportation said Thursday that reversing the lanes on Interstate 65 on July 9 went smoothly.

"It never reached the point of overload," DOT spokesman Tony Harris said. He said traffic peaked at midday July 9, between 75-90 percent of highway capacity.

No bottlenecks

Dothan Police Chief John Powell said the evacuations were spread out enough that bottlenecks were avoided in Southeast Alabama, and, he said, "flow was constant."

Part of the congestion on South Alabama highways was caused by people coming into the state from Northwest Florida.

Harris said I-65 is the only roadway where lane reversal will be used. He said reversing lanes on U.S. 231 in Southeast Alabama isn't planned, because it would require the help of the National Guard to police all the many intersections.

"When we look at evacuating, north-south evacuation makes sense along the Alabama Gulf Coast," Harris said.

The east-west Interstate 10 parallels the coast. Florida traffic can angle up into Georgia or head west into Mississippi or Louisiana.

Large undertaking

DOT holds an annual rehearsal of the lane-reversal on I-65. It takes about 200 DOT workers and 100 state troopers and local police to actually reverse the lanes, Harris said.

He urged coastal residents to plan ahead for an evacuation and decide where they are going before hitting the roadways.

Debbi Pelligrin of Mobile said Thursday she probably will take her large group back to Natchez, Miss., if there's another evacuation.

During Dennis, Pelligrin said, her evacuation group included 15 adults, six dogs and 11 children. They rented a three-bedroom trailer near Natchez.

"I can't go to the shelter because I have dogs," she said. And the worst part of evacuation: "Getting everything loaded and packed. It hurt the pocketbook, too, all the water and gas you have to buy," Pelligrin said.

Heavy traffic

Harris said during an evacuation — whether mandatory or voluntary — people can expect heavy traffic and should be aware that in major cities, traffic is going to slow down, particularly in Montgomery, where major interstates intersect.

Also, once the hurricane makes landfall, evacuation traffic that built up over several days will try to return in a single day.

"People need to expect that's a slow process," Harris said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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