It was two years ago today Hurricane Rita made landfall just across the Texas border in Louisiana, causing billions of dollars in damage along the Gulf Coast. The storm also prompted hundreds of thousands of Houstonians to evacuate, creating nightmare gridlock on area roads. As Houston Public Radio’s Jack Williams reports, officials at the area’s emergency operations nerve center, Houston Transtar, says they’ve made some changes since then that should make things go smoother next time.
Two years ago, Houston Mayor Bill White stood in the lobby at Houston Transtar, preparing a nervous city for what would turn out to be a disastrous evacuation, with many motorists stuck in massive traffic jams for hours on end.
“If you do have access to a vehicle that is leaving town by a friend, neighbor, loved one, please take advantage of that opportunity.”
As it turned out, with too many people on the roads and no place for them to go, the evacuation caused more problems than the actual storm, which barely clipped Houston and caused minimal damage here. Now, two years later, emergency managers say they’ve learned some valuable lessons. This is Transtar’s Dinah Martinez.
“It was definitely a wake-up call and hopefully the things that we do this time around will make a much smoother transition, but an evacuation of 1.5 million people is never going to be pretty. It will take longer than people want it to. Unfortunately the weather is usually hot. It may be painful, but we want to avoid the kind of tragedy that happened last time.”
One of the changes is the installation of 75 wireless hurricane cameras along evacuation routes out of Houston, in places like Brenham, Lufkin and Luling. The Tx-Dot cameras can send digital photos back to emergency managers at Transtar.
“These cameras there will be where evacuation routes begin with the contra-flow plan, so contra-flow will begin at those points where the roads narrow to keep traffic moving as optimally as possible, but then also we can monitor to make sure that if traffic does begin to back-up fast that we can make adjustments that we need to make.”
Transtar has also upgraded its website since Rita, creating a redundant server based in Arizona if the new servers at Transtar go down during a storm.
“We had 14 million hits in the 24 hour period when Rita was expected to make landfall. That was a stressor for us at that time. Now, our website will be able to handle that. We’ve also moved the website servers to this building, which is Category 4 hurricane force wind resistant. Must stronger place for it to be housed.”
Martinez says officials hope a zip-code based evacuation system also makes things easier for residents who choose to leave the Houston area in the event of a storm. During Rita, many residents ignored calls for an orderly evacuation, which contributed to the gridlock.