Hurricane Series: New Leadership in Harris County

Many hurricane preparedness lessons were learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Two of the key positions in Harris County have changed since that time. Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels now works in the private sector and the former head of the Office of Emergency Mangement retired. In the final part of this news series, Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker reports on how the new leadership is approaching this hurricane season.

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"I think Harris County is very well prepared. Does that mean everything will go smoothly. Absolutely not. Nasty thing about hurricanes is there are always surprises. That's what mother nature does to you."

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says emergency plans continue to be revisited not only locally but throughout the state as well. The revised evacuation plans have Houstonians going to the state's other large cities. Emmett says smaller towns along the evacuation routes also learned lessons from the 2005 evacuation.

"All of a sudden they looked up and they couldn't even get across the one main road in their town. Nobody had turned the traffic signals off so that the traffic could flow through and you had this massive traffic jam. Now they've experienced that so they will know better, so a series of phone calls to the small towns will let the traffic flow through them a little bit better too."

Emmett did not evacuate in 2005.

"It's the old thing that you run from water and hunker down and hide from wind."

This time Emmett will be at TranStar:

"My role is to hopefully stay calm and let the professionals do their job."

That's where Mike Montgomery steps in as the head of the Harris County Office of Emergency Management which is housed in TranStar.

"Right outside of the operations center we overlook onto the floor of Transtar which is the transportation hub. Tucker: standing here I can't help but imagine this is a very similar layout to a mission control at JSC. Montgomery: Very similar, if you look down at the floor there are consoles with people manning individual consoles each one is responsible for a small piece of that information."

That information is filtered for officials to make decisions on what to tell the public. Montgomery says the new evacuation map based on ZIP codes for large hurricanes will help. He says one problem in 2005 was more people evacuated than what plans called for.

"Almost five times as many people evacuated as needed to evacuate, even if we had received a direct hit. So what that told us was of the about 2.5 million people that evacuated, really only 500,000 needed to evacuate. It's very obvious that if we had four times less vehicles on the road the evacuation would have been much much smoother."

Montgomery warns not to mistake the word "smoother" to mean it'll be easy. It won't be.

"What we have focused on improving are those choke points that are farther inland and farther north. It's these areas where contraflow is going to have the greatest effect. In smaller areas like Gidding and Brenham and on 59 from here to Nacadoches, and on 45 from here to Ennis."

At the same time, Montgomery worries that people have grown complacent again because there was no activity last year. He advises people to make a decision about their intentions now.

"Don't wait until you have a senior elected official saying it's time to leave. You need to make taht decision."

For the KUHF newsroom, I'm Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

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