Listen and Learn: Officials Hope Residents Take Emergency Message to Heart

With the start of 2006 hurricane season less than a month away, local officials are still fine-tuning their emergency plans. They're adjusting evacuation routes and trying to figure out how to get local residents to listen to them the next time a big storm heads toward Houston. In the last of a five part special series, Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports on the challenges of facilitating an orderly evacuation and response.

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"You can ask the public to do things and you and you can try to inform the public, but the bottom line is we're really at the public's mercy."

Dennis Storemski is the city of Houston's director of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

"When you have an evacuation if more people leave than need to leave, then it creates more people on the roadways, so the big thing is to get information out to folks so that they can make good decisions and I think that's the best we can do."

During the Rita evacuation, tens of thousands of Houston residents ignored official advice to stay at home if they lived in areas that weren't in immediate danger. Many instead followed what their neighbors or friends did, which led to packed freeways and massive traffic jams. A new public awareness campaign will begin next month to educate people on if they need to leave, and if so, when. Rice University political scientist Bob Stein says officials won't be able to change behavior overnight.

"The problem is getting their attention, framing the issue and getting them to comply. If you can get their attention and frame the issue that's two-thirds the way to gettimg them to comply with what you think is an appropriate behavior."

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels was in the middle of the Rita experience and tried without much success to convince people to stay home if they didn't need to leave. He says officials will know what to expect next time and will do all they can to caution residents to consider all their alternatives before they hit the road.

"We won't pull the trigger and ask people to leave if we don't have a reasonable expectation that the storm is coming, but we will be hoping that folks will listen to the officials and take the time to properly prepare before they hit the road."

Despite the failures of the Rita experience, officials now consider it a valuable dry-run, a chance to see what worked and what didn't. They also found that they performed well together in the middle of a major crisis. Again, Bob Stein.

"When a crisis like this occurs, you get the residual effect of the inter-personal relationships and you can't begin to appreciate how important they are, because when a Mayor White can talk to a Robert Eckels, Democrat, Republican, county and city, all the things that make them different, this was the thing on which they could agree. First Katrina, now Rita and I think their level of cooperation has a spill-over effect that will incur more trust and more willingness to cooperate."

Rice University's Stephen Klineberg, the author of the annual Houston Survey, says the Katrina and Rita experiences may have the bolstered the confidence of both emergency officials and residents as they head into a new hurricane season.

"We know we can do it and we know that city and county can work seamlessly together, which we didn't know before. This is a city that has not scored high on civic engagement. We live very separate lives, we commute longer than almost any other city in the country. We all came together."

To hear the entire five-part hurricane series, go to our website, KUHF.org

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