Storm planners reflect on busy hurricane season

Published 2:40 am Sunday, November 30, 2008

In New Orleans, a dire warning to flee emptied the city before Hurricane Gustav in early September. In Houston less than two weeks later, a plea to “hunker down” might have kept evacuation routes from clogging before Hurricane Ike struck.

The strategies were different but the results largely the same: Both cities avoided repeating disastrous evacuations that cost lives during the deadly 2005 hurricane season.

Many Gulf Coast cities overhauled their disaster plans after hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years ago. With another destructive storm season ending Sunday, emergency planners are reflecting on lessons learned from Gustav and Ike to get ready for next year.

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Retired Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, New Orleans’ emergency preparedness director, said residents deserve much of the credit for a successful Gustav evacuation.

“The number-one reason we succeeded for Gustav is that our citizens listened to us,” he said.

Following catastrophic failures in evacuating people before and after Katrina, Louisiana emergency planners developed a model system using public transportation. It paid off for Gustav, the first time it was used.

Two days before Gustav made landfall, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation for what he called the “mother of all storms” and warned residents they wouldn’t get emergency services if they stayed.

In a mass migration orchestrated by state officials, an estimated 2 million residents of coastal Louisiana evacuated before Gustav crashed ashore 90 miles southwest of the city Sept. 1.

The number of people left behind was minimal compared to Katrina, when thousands sought shelter at the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans convention center and were stranded for days without food and water.

Gustav was blamed for 46 deaths in Louisiana and caused $1.9 billion in insured losses, numbers dwarfed by Katrina’s death toll of more than 1,600 and $41.1 billion in property damage.

“To our knowledge,” Sneed said, “no city has ever evacuated their entire population, and we feel 97 percent of the city’s population did evacuate.”

There were some flaws: Evacuees were taken to shelters without showers or adequate medical care; a state contractor who was supposed to provide 700 buses for the evacuation only delivered 311; and victims endured long lines for disaster food stamps.

Thomas Sanchez, a University of Utah professor who studies evacuation planning, said cities can’t plan for disasters in a vacuum.

“This kind of planning really has to happen on a regional basis, and that’s not what we’re finding,” Sanchez said. “It’s more than about a city figuring out how to take care of itself.”

Texas learned that the hard way. In 2005, before Hurricane Rita struck, its evacuation plan required Houston to wait until 2 million people on the Gulf Coast had moved past the city, which sits 50 miles inland, but city leaders ordered Houston to evacuate early anyway.

Hundreds of thousands jammed the freeways in sweltering late September, stalled for days. Some 110 people died in accidents or from exposure or heart attacks. Only a handful died in the storm itself, which missed the Houston area and hit mostly rural southeast Texas.

By the time Hurricane Ike’s path was apparent — a direct hit on Galveston Island and Houston — mandatory evacuations were ordered for coastal counties and a few Houston ZIP codes along waterways sure to flood. Everyone else was ordered to stay put.

“We are still saying: Please shelter in place, or to use the Texas expression, hunker down,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county’s chief administrator, said at the time.

This time, the freeway was jammed leading away from Galveston immediately after the order, but by late afternoon on Sept. 12, the day before Ike arrived, many evacuees had made it north of Houston.

“‘Hunker down’ definitely got the message across,” said Francisco Sanchez, a spokesman for the Harris County emergency management office.

Still, in part because of the direct hit on Galveston and Houston, Ike was blamed for at least 72 deaths, including 37 in Texas, and caused $8.1 billion in insured losses, eclipsing the $5.6 billion in damage attributed to Rita.

The 2008 hurricane season was one of the most active on record, with 16 named storms, including eight hurricanes, forming in the Atlantic. Five of the eight hurricanes were at least Category 3 strength.