Ten years ago, Hurricane Rita crashed ashore in Southeast Texas. Hitting Texas just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, many do not remember this storm. However, it was a big storm which caused immense damage and about 150 deaths. Here is an article that was published yesterday in the USA Today. The article was written by Alan Gomez. As the article notes, many lessons were learned from the disaster. And the lessons were learned. The State of Texas and its jurisdictions did indeed learn from Hurricane Rita. The response to citizens in Texas was much improved three years later when Hurricane Ike hit near Galveston. Here is the article:
Many who live along the Gulf of Mexico refer to Rita as the “forgotten hurricane.”
Hitting the U.S. just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, most Americans paid little attention to Rita, which made landfall Sept. 24, 2005, in a far less populated area along the Texas-Louisiana border. Where Katrina left more than 1,800 dead, Rita killed fewer than 150.
But for emergency managers, Rita was almost more important in terms of the lessons learned following the disaster. In the 10 years since Rita struck as a Category 3 hurricane, Texas emergency management officials have redesigned their evacuation plans, local leaders have started building new shelters and Louisiana legislators have updated their antiquated building codes.
“A major lesson? I would say so,” said Ryan Bourriaque, a lifelong resident of Cameron Parish in southwestern Louisiana who now serves as the parish administrator.
The biggest change came in the way large cities evacuate.
As it approached the coast, Rita’s forecast changed daily. The storm was first expected to strike southern Texas, then the massive Houston metropolitan area before actually making landfall close to the Louisiana border. That meant cities from Brownsville to Corpus Christi to Houston were sending their residents fleeing to points further inland, with 3 million people hitting the road at nearly the same time.
That led to agonizing traffic jams where people waited more than a dozen hours to travel just a few miles. Cars that ran out of gas were stranded by the dozens, several died from heat stroke and a van carrying nursing home evacuees exploded, killing 23 patients.
Madhu Beriwal, founder and president of the disaster management consulting firm IEM, said Texas officials were simply not ready for the size of the evacuation. As the storm approached, they ordered phased evacuations to get people out in manageable groups, and they implemented “contra-flow” traffic on highways, meaning all lanes are used to evacuate people in one direction. The problem, Beriwal said, is the state started those plans far too late, leaving a mess on the roads.
“You have to commend them for trying, but there were some problems with trying to do that in the midst of an evacuation,” she said. “It wasn’t successful because that’s a very complicated thing.”
The state responded by preparing plans for future evacuations and, in 2007, creating the Texas Statewide Mutual Aid System to allow local governments to help each other more easily. Now, all cities have evacuation plans and timelines for when to order them. The state has improved its communication with local officials to coordinate the entire system.
Greg Fountain, the emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County, Texas, said that plan includes contracts with fuel distributors and gas stations to ensure that there’s gas available along evacuation routes. He said those new plans were put to the test when Hurricane Ike tore through the same region in 2008. That time, Fountain said traffic moved through the evacuation routes more smoothly and there was plenty of fuel for evacuees.
“Three years later comes Ike and the plans were fantastic,” Fountain said.
Rita also led to other changes throughout the region. Cameron County, Texas, is the southernmost county in the state, but it was in the storm’s path at one point. Given that experience, Tom Hushen, the county emergency management coordinator, said the county began building new, domed shelters to withstand hurricane-force winds.
The county also has contracts with construction firms that can bring heavy equipment, debris-removal operations, companies that provide emergency food and water and others that provide portable bathrooms.
In Louisiana, Rita helped usher in a new era of building codes. Most of the homes in Cameron County, La., a coastal community with just 6,700 people, had been around for generations when the storm tore through. Bourriaque said many of the residents who lost their homes were upset that the Louisiana legislature implemented new building codes that included requirements to elevate homes built in flood zones.
“The feeling was, ‘We’re trying to survive and you’re telling me I can’t build my house back that’s been in the family for six generations?'” he said. “That’s $275,000 for a house that could be built on the ground for $75,000.”
But Bourriaque said Hurricane Ike showed how valuable those new codes were. During Rita, 50% of the county’s homes were destroyed or so badly damaged that they couldn’t be salvaged.
“The homes that were built post-Rita to the elevation standards survived Ike and were minimally impacted,” he said. “Not even losing siding or shingles.”
Despite all the work to improve responses to hurricanes following Rita, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said not enough localities have taken heed.
Fugate said FEMA, the National Hurricane Center and the Army Corps of Engineers work together to constantly update risk assessments for every coastal city from Texas to Maine. They run models to show local officials how to organize their evacuations and provide different strategies to conduct them effectively. He said some communities, like those around Norfolk, Va., have worked hard in recent years to update their plans. The rest?
“Some have done more than others,” he said.