Hurricane Preparation: Big Changes After 2005 Storms

The 2006 Atlantic Hurricane season begins a month from today. State and regional officials are working to apply lessons learned from last year's evacuation grid-lock to new emergency plans that could be needed if another storm comes calling. All this week, KUHF will present a five-part series looking at local preparations for the upcoming hurricane season. In part one, Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker takes a look back at what was learned from Hurricane Rita and what will be different should the Houston region be threatened again.

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Transportation, communication and public education are the major lessons learned from Hurriance Rita. She went east and made landfall at Sabine Pass. While Rita caused massive damage to east Texas, for Houston, Rita was a real-life drill of this area's evacuation plans. Nearly two million people poured onto the highways causing a nightmare grid-lock beyond imagination. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels ...

"In the end, on Friday when the storm hit, it wound up hitting in Beaumont, but had it hit here, it was reasonably successful. The roads were clear and the grid lock was gone and folks had moved on to higher ground. There is a lot of room for improvement. We've learned a lot and you'll see a lot of those things implemented."

One of the first things tackled was the traffic managment plan. Bill King chaired one of two task-forces he served on. He says the existing plan only dealt with evacuating hurricane flood prone areas, or surge zones, into Harris County.

"The problem was not how to get those people out of those areas into Houston but how to get everybody out of Houston and on to Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio areas for the evacuation. So where the evacuation broke down was on the north and west sides of Houston."

There's little doubt that the Katrina experience impacted how Houstonians reacted when Rita, at a category five level, seemed to be aiming straight for Galveston. Houston Mayor Bill White says the public needs help making better informed choices about evacuating.

"People should not panic if you're not in the flood prone areas and you're in a secure structure, and not everybody is not in a secure structure, but if you're in a secure structure and you're not in one of those areas that's about a third of the county in the storm surge area, then you know, it may be the safest place is where you live in your house."

More than 130 people died during the Rita evacuation. Many people evacuated because they did not want to live without power for weeks on end. Officials are considering asking those, who are in safe locations, to consider evacuating after the storm has passed and roads are clear.

As the clock ticks down to June first, work is continuing. King says the area will never be completely prepared.

"A category four or five hurricane coming through the middle of Houston coming up the Houston Ship Channel is going to be a devastating event and there are going to be many lives lost I don't care what we do. So, people should not think there's some finish line here we're going to cross and suddenly going to be prepared for this kind of catastrophic event."

Still, officials are making a concerted effort to improve the plans. Contra-flow is the buzz word when talking about evacuations ... tomorrow, we'll look at what contra-flow can and cannot accomplish for evacuating Houstonians. Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

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