Millions more Americans are exposed to hurricanes as the population grows in the Southeast and Gulf states, and meteorologists worry that these new residents may underestimate the dangers they could face.

The entire region from Texas to North Carolina has experienced sharp growth in recent years - a period that has averaged relatively few hurricanes.That means many coastal residents have never experienced a major storm.

Emergency management officials say they fear that when a major storm does threaten, people will underestimate the danger and delay evacuation or fail to leave at all.

"We are more vulnerable to hurricanes in the United States now than we have ever been in our history," said the American Meteorological Society in a special statement of concern adopted a couple of years ago.

"It is imperative that coastal residents and visitors alike take the threat seriously, acquaint themselves with hurricane safety rules, and evacuate immediately if advised to do so," said Robert Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables, Fla.

As it is, the population in many regions - such as the New Orleans area - now exceeds the number that could be safely evacuated in the time available, officials said.

"Some evacuation times for high-density coastal populations are much larger than the amount of time that we can reasonably give a decent warning," said meteorologist Miles Lawrence of the Hurricane Center.

Florida's Atlantic coast tops the region with 2,075 people per shoreline mile, up from 824 per mile in 1960, according to a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

About one-third of the residents in the Southeast region - from Texas to North Carolina - are considered coastal in the NOAA study, including the entire population of Florida.

June 1 marks the official start of hurricane season for the Southeast, and the danger period extends to autumn.

"Overall, there have been less hurricanes in the last 20 years than prior to that," noted Mr. Lawrence, adding that "Southeast Florida has not had a direct hit by a Category 3 or higher (storm) since 1965."

Strong storms have struck in recent years in South Carolina and Texas, however, he said. Hurricanes are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 the strongest.

Last year's Hurricane Hugo killed 29 people and did an estimated $5.9 billion in damage in South Carolina. The storm also inflicted serious damage on adjacent states as well as the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Advance warning, however, allowed people to be evacuated from many coastal islands and low-lying regions.

While Hugo is reportedly the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, it is far from the deadliest.

That occurred in 1900 when a storm arriving with little warning drove a wall of water over Galveston, Texas, killing an estimated 6,000 people.

While Florida's East Coast is the most densely populated area where hurricanes post the greatest threat, all areas seem to be growing rapidly.

Texas' coastal counties average 1,517 people per shore mile, up from 798 in 1960. Third is Florida's west coast, where the coastal population has risen

from 433 per mile in 1960 to 1,064 currently, according to NOAA.