Monday, September 26

RITA EVACUATION: WHO SHOULD HAVE FLED; WHO SHOULD HAVE HID?

Run from the water; hide from the wind.

That, reports the "Houston Chronicle" (registration required), is evacuation planning in a nutshell and formed the underpinnings of how hurricane planners assessed who should go and who should stay in the event of a major hurricane taking dead aim at America's 4th largest city and the low-lying Texas coastal region contiguous to it.

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.

As the Chronicle reports:

Counseling people to stay put with a monster storm approaching is a tricky thing. Houston-area officials were stern about evacuations in the surge zones shown on their maps, but became considerably more vague about advice for everyone else.

Houston Mayor Bill White called for residents to use "common sense," but he did implore them to leave early if they were leaving.

Florida hurricane planners have learned to worry about the "shadow evacuation" — residents outside the mandatory evacuation zones who leave.

It is always much larger in the immediate aftermath of another major storm — in this case, Hurricane Katrina.

"It makes it more difficult to get out of areas that really need to evacuate. They give up," said Earl "Jay" Baker, an evacuation expert and geography professor at Florida State University.

The answer is to respect people's freedom of choice, but make sure they are educated at the beginning of each hurricane season so they can weigh realistic considerations, Baker said. His example: if you evacuate, you definitely will find yourself in a titanic traffic jam; if you stay, there may be only a one-in-five chance the storm will hit your area and, if it does, you will spend a terrifying night in your house, but probably will be fine.

The winds from a strong hurricane can rip off parts of roofs and smash windows, but solid structures stay intact and people are OK if they stay in the center of a home, away from windows, he said.

It is hard to tell an individual to endure that, he said, but from a regional standpoint, it may mean that those in the surge zones can evacuate safely.

One option is to ask that people who want to make a "precautionary evacuation" do so before mandatory evacuations are enacted, Baker said. Otherwise, they should be told to shelter in place. That is what planners call the "demand" side of the evacuation.


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.

FOLLOW-UP: Anne Linehan at "blogHouston.net provides additional information germane to this topic.

FOLLOW-UP II: Anne Linehan, again, at "blogHouston.net," but this time focusing on Houston mayor Bill White's finger-pointing on the fuel shortages that upended a smooth evacuation (coupled with Kevin Whited's pointed remarks vis-a-vis evacuation decision-making).