Thursday, September 29

THE EVACUATION: A DISASTER WITHIN A DISASTER

Since I published this post on Tuesday of this week the Hurricane Rita-related death toll associated largely with the evacuation of Harris and its neighboring counties (and not the hurricane itself) has trebled.

The "Houston Chronicle" (registration required for online edition) is reporting now that a total of 109 lives were lost in Rita's aftermath, a number of which resulted directly from a mass exodus in stifling heat and disastrous gridlock, compounded by egregious fuel shortages.

Cindy Horswell and Edward Hegstrom of the Chronicle write (excerpts follow):

A Chronicle survey of Houston-area counties and those along major evacuation routes to the north and west indicates that at least 107 people were killed by last week's hurricane or died in accidents or from health problems associated with the evacuation of 2.5 million people from their homes.

One day before the expected announcement of a state-county-city task force to examine the problems that plagued the exodus, which doubled or tripled the travel time between Houston and other Texas cities, Mayor Bill White conceded, "I don't think the evacuation should be a disaster in itself."

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, whose wife spent more than 12 hours in a U.S. 290 traffic jam, called for a careful review of the evacuation. "People are downplaying the fact that people died in the evacuation and that is not right," he said. "Is the chance of dying greater in the movement than in the storm? That's the question we need to consider."


The reporters continue, describing a bleak, desperate situation, as motorists and their passengers fled the Rita-threatened area:

Law enforcement officers not prone to tears said they often wept openly as they dealt with the repercussions of the flight from Rita.

"It was horrible," said San Jacinto County Sheriff's spokesman J.J. Stitt.

Stitt helped provide a police escort for a charter bus filled with elderly residents from the Houston area en route to a local hospital. Earlier, the bus driver had made a 911 emergency call to authorities as his passengers sickened. By the time officers arrived, two were dead.

At Conroe Regional Medical Center, spokesman Fritz Guthrie said 600 patients arrived at the hospital during the evacuation — about 25 percent more than normal.

"Most of them arrived with effects of the heat — heat exhaustion and heat stroke," he said. Others came in with heart problems or blood clots in their legs from sitting too long. "We had people walking over from the freeway having babies."

La Marque resident Mary Lou Bourgeois, 92, became another Rita evacuation victim when she reluctantly joined her family fleeing via clogged I-10.

"She would never run," said her granddaughter Sheronda Bourgeois, 30. "She always said, 'If God is going to get you, he's going to get you.' "

After about 12 hours on the road Thursday — the family had gotten only as far as west Houston — the elderly woman began having difficulty breathing. She then lost consciousness. She died Friday at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Hospital.

"We all have our self-doubt about evacuating," her granddaughter said. "No one wanted to die like those people in New Orleans and we thought we were doing the right thing by taking our grandmother with us. It's hurt the way she left us.

"We would rather her be at home, surrounded by her children and great-grandchildren."


This blogger examined the evacuation and the underpinnings of the evacuation plan in this post, published back on September 26th, and wrote:

In a city built largely on reclaimed swampland (Houston is called, after all, the "Bayou City"), large portions of it fall in flood plains and widespread flooding is a fact of life here after significant rainfall -- witness Tropical Storm Allison in June, 2001.

That's why the evacuation plan for the greater Houston area was grounded on mandatory evacuation from flood plain zones and areas that would be subject to storm surge and never contemplated a city-wide evacuation. A post-Katrina apprehension seemed to drive people from Houston who needn't have left and that apprehension was compounded by what some regard as ambiguous, CYA signals from local officials.

I continued:

Katrina and its horror stories, particularly those reported in the overweening 24/7 cable news coverage of the grotesque disaster that was the levee breaks in New Orleans and the subequent horrific flooding of the Crescent City, spawned a palpable fear in people who only weeks later were staring at a Category 5 hurricane swallowing up the Gulf of Mexico and bearing down on a huge population center in southeastern Texas. It is altogether understandable that the calls for voluntary evacuations in advance of mandatory evacuations were heeded beyond the expectations of local officials and emergency planners. That was no doubt part of the equation.

But the other part is that hurricane planning must be communicated better by the media and made public by government officials. This sort of information should be widely disseminated and made intelligible before each hurricane season, so citizens can best assess their personal situations and know in what instances they're to run and in what instances they're to hide.

Fact is, people who needed to evacuate flood-threatened, well-defined zones in greater Houston were impeded in their exodus by people who chose to flee who were not. We can do better next time around and we must.

Ironic, isn't it? The post-Katrina story out of New Orleans was that thousands stubbornly failed to heed the evacuation call and thousands more were unable to do so owing to age, infirmity, or lack of transportation, made worse by the local and state governments' purposeful indifference to getting their citizens out of harm's way. By contrast, the emerging post-Rita story here in the Galveston-Houston area is of needless deaths owing to an evacuation too vigorously complied with and of the failure of officials to assure that 2.0+ million evacuees had available fuel (and water!) at roadside services along the designated evacuation routes.