SHALIMAR, Fla. – As Hurricane Ivan (search) approached last year, some businesses stayed open and many people didn't start to evacuate — if they left at all — until the last minute.
Ivan killed 29 people in the Panhandle, and this time, residents seem to have learned their lesson. Towns along the Gulf coast in Hurricane Dennis' (search) path were nearly deserted on Sunday. Residents fled early or hunkered down inside.
"I hate to say this, but it's almost like Ivan was a practice run," said Don Amunds, an Okaloosa County commissioner.
But Dennis weakened Sunday just before striking less than 50 miles east of Ivan's landfall. And despite widespread power outages, early reports indicated relatively modest damage and no deaths.
Government officials believe Ivan taught them how to prepare. Officials know a lot more about exactly what happens when a major hurricane comes ashore in a particular area, Amunds said.
"We know what areas 10 months ago flooded the worst," Amunds said. That makes officials better able to advise people on who should evacuate, and even allows them to mitigate flooding in some cases, drawing down retention ponds and other bodies of water.
Officials also knew to close the Interstate 10 bridge over Escambia Bay (search), where a semi truck driver was killed last year as Ivan approached and his cab fell into the bay. This year, the state transportation department closed the bridge early Sunday morning, as winds on the bridge gusted over 45 mph hours before Dennis came ashore.
Escambia County Administrator George Touart estimates that more than 100,000 of his county's residents have fled, about a third of the population.
"It was as smooth as I've ever seen an evacuation go," he said. "Somebody told me this morning we've got this thing down to a science but then it's the fourth time in 10 months we've done it."
Evacuations were less stressful because they were more spread out, officials said.
"This time, although it was congested, we didn't see bad backups," Okaloosa County spokeswoman Kathleen Mignacca said.
Residents also had practical lessons about how to weather a storm.
"We're more prepared; we've got a lot more water," said Steven Van Minsel, who was waiting out the storm at a Fort Walton Beach school being used as a shelter with his wife, Diane, and their 16-year-old son, Josh.
This time, they were ready to be out of their apartment for days. And this time Josh brought his Game Boy.
"I was bored last time," he said.