Packing 125-mph winds, Hurricane George slammed the Florida Keys. A house was thrust over a seawall in Key West when the tidal surge pummeled the island chain. (photo by Drew Dixon)

The good thing about hurricanes is that you know they are coming. The bad thing about hurricanes is that you know they are coming. For one South Florida sheriff's department, a week in mid-September was a days-long reminder of that dichotomy.

Monroe County has a peculiar geography, encompassing that moist chunk of South Florida real estate known as the Everglades, then stretching down Highway A1A to the very tip of the state. For sheriff's deputies, it has always been an interesting challenge to watch over the sparsely populated Everglades and the 42-island Florida Keys, ending with Key West, just 90 miles north of Cuba. Within its borders, the sheriff's department protects 80,000 residents, a number that can swell to more than 250,000 on a good holiday weekend.

As part of a larger high-tech experiment, the Two-Eyes intelligence project, financed by a $187,000 science and technology development grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute for Justice, Monroe County has begun linking its field deputies with a wide area network accessed through desktop machines or laptop computers. So far, only 13 laptops are in operation, but when Mother Nature turned her angry gaze on the Keys in September, they were a key ingredient in preserving order and saving lives.

A Fragile Strand

The islands have tantalized visitors for more than 100 years. Their beauty leads a fragile existence -- late each summer, the tropical storms start swirling into tighter and tighter spirals throughout the Caribbean, and residents, tourists and officials become joined in the common occupation of watching the storm tracks. It had been many years since the Keys suffered more than a glancing blow and, as the season wound down, it seemed they might be spared again.

Then Hurricane Georges began its island rampage, wreaking a week's worth of havoc throughout the Caribbean before it turned its eye toward Key West. A tense daily vigil began.

Evacuating 40,000 people from anywhere is a daunting task; evacuating 40,000 people from a chain of islands linked by a single highway, often only two lanes wide, is so difficult it is humbling. But by Sept. 23, that is exactly what Monroe County deputies knew they had to do.

Hurricane Georges, a category-two storm, had already leveled homes on dozens of Caribbean islands, leaving hundreds of thousands of people exposed to the elements, when the decision was made to begin evacuating the Keys. Within a few hours, sturdy laptop computers mounted in several deputies patrol cars began making their presence felt.

The storm and evacuation required a dramatic increase in the number of deputies on patrol, which meant more voices cluttering up the traditional channel of law enforcement communications, the radio. During the evacuation, the shift jumped from the standard five deputies to 25. With more deputies on duty, there were more assignments being handed out by supervisors, more changes in areas that deputies were covering and more requests for information coming to dispatchers. The laptops -- a mixture of units purchased from PC Mobile Cycomm and MicroSlate -- each cost the sheriff's department about $9,000 to bring into operation. Still, they are among the most durable products on the market, withstanding the rigors of use during the storm and helping route many of those extra communications off the normal radio.

Each laptop either has a touch screen or pen-based touch screen, letting officers move from field to field with a single tap on an on-screen icon. Eight of the units make their connections through a UHF radio band while the other five utilize cellular digital packet data connections (CDPD). The laptops are able to access the Internet, the Miami-Dade