Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Wrapping up Rita

Lori made it home safely late last night. She was exhausted, physically as well as emotionally drained from her week-long absence, but glad to be home nevertheless. She left Kirby in Temple with my mother and my aunt; mom will probably bring him home sometime today.

Things in Houston are quickly returning to normal. Gas stations are being resupplied, grocery stores are busy restocking shelves, businesses are reopening and streets and highways that were eerily deserted last Friday and Saturday are once again full of cars.

An article in Monday's Chronicle regarding the evacuation process reflects my feelings about the ordeal. As the subtitle says, "The evacuation shows more need to stay put, and all lanes should be outbound."
Hurricane planners have a little ditty that goes, "run from the water, hide from the wind."

It means evacuate if you are in a coastal surge area, but hunker down if you are in an area that will get hurricane-force winds and rain only.

The biggest problem in Houston's painful evacuation last week was that perhaps a million people, almost half of those who left, ran from the wind. To make matters worse, the regional evacuation plan was missing a key element — pre-planned contraflow lanes that are a part of virtually every other hurricane-prone city's evacuation strategy.
As I've said, a lot of people got caught up in a (mostly-media-driven) frenzy and left when they probably would have done just as well to stay where they were, and that exacerbated the evacuation chaos. It also absolutely amazes me that, before last Thursday, there was no contraflow evacuation plan in place - it was all done ad-hoc as the interstates leading out of town became hopelessly clogged with people.

Hurricane Rita is a learning experience for everybody: residents, local planning and law enforcement officials, elected officials, and, hopefully, the local media.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Rita: did we overreact?

I finally went to sleep around 7 am yesterday morning, once the winds had begun to die down and the radar showed that the storm was on its way out. Later in the afternoon I went to my folks' house and helped my dad cut and clear fallen limbs from the front yard (it's the same sickly ash tree that lost most of its limbs during Alicia 22 years ago; it probably just needs to be removed altogether and replaced with a stronger species). Damage to this neighborhood has been confined to tree limbs and branches. The streets were a mess, littered with leaves and branches, but that was the extent of destruction - no roof damage or broken windows, from what I could see. Thankfully and amazingly, we never lost power or cable/internet service here (Danny and I were even chatting with my brother in Japan over the computer early Saturday morning, as the winds howled outside), although other parts of this neighborhood did; my parents' house was without electricity until late this afternoon so my dad spent last night here.

Saturday evening Danny and I actually found a gas station nearby whose tanks had just been reloaded and we used the opportunity to fill up the car. Then we went to the Dog House Tavern (one of the few businesses open last night) to celebrate the passing of the storm.

The Houston area dodged a bullet at this time. A direct hit, from a much stronger hurricane, would have been absolutely devastating. As recently as Wednesday, that very scenario was one being predicted by the weather forecasters.

That sent millions of people fleeing the region, which in turn created gridlock on highways leading out of town. Four-hour trips to Dallas and San Antonio turned into grueling sixteen-hour journeys as the highways became hopelessly clogged with vehicles. Untold numbers of people ran out of gas and became stranded along the shoulders, desperately looking for assistance. In a freak accident, 23 elderly people being evacuated from a Bellaire nursing home were killed when their bus literally exploded outside of Dallas. There were other reports of death from heat exhaustion was well, as motorists, in an attempt to conserve gasoline, turned off air conditioners and put themselves at the mercy of 100-degree temperatures.

In the coming weeks, there is going to be a great deal of discussion and finger-pointing regarding this evacuation process. Was the area's evacuation plan adequate? Did people, with the destruction wrought by Katrina fresh in their minds, overreact to the approaching storm?

The answers, in my opinion, are "probably not" and "probably." The network of evacuation routes, the contraflow implementation plan, and the prioritization of evacuation zones will probably all need to be revisited and refined, but there's only so much that can be done when upwards of three million people are all trying to get out at once. The second question is one that has been discussed by other bloggers (see Beldar and Kuff, for example), and while I really don't think you can "overreact" to the prospect of a category five hurricane bearing down on your city, I do believe that a lot of people - folks out on the northern and western fringes of town, not in floodplains or designated evacuation zones, for example - got caught up in a collective hysteria and decided to leave when when it wasn't yet necessary for them to do so, thereby adding to the overall gridlock. There were reports of people in mandatory evacuation zones such as Clear Lake City or even Galveston giving up and returning to their homes due to the standstill conditions on area freeways, and that is something that is truly unacceptable.

I believe it would have helped if the overall reaction to the storm were a bit more measured and rational in the days before it hit. I think the local news media deserves most of the blame in this regard; they hyped this thing for all it was worth and, in my opinion, needlessly panicked a lot of people. Hurricane predictions 72 hours before landfall are notoriously inaccurate, meaning that the storm more than likely was going to spare Houston a direct hit. This, indeed, is what happened to Rita: it veered off to the east and only brushed Houston. Secondly, there was almost-universal agreement among weather professionals that the storm, which was indeed a category five as it churned over the warm sea earlier in the week, would weaken as it moved into cooler waters closer inland and would not be as intense once it made landfall. This, again, is what happened to Rita, as it weakened from a category 5 out in the Gulf to a category 3 when it made landfall. I wish that these facts, as well as the locations and the designs of the evacuation zones themselves, had been more prominently explained by the local media (as well as elected officials), as it no doubt would have caused a lot of people who were not in areas of high risk, such as Katy or Cypress or Tomball, to assess the situation a bit more objectively before they decided to jam the highways leading out of town. That, in turn, would have helped to allow the people that were in truly high-risk areas to get out first.

But instead of rational, calm discussion of the hurricane, the uncertainties inherent in its projected path, the effects of wind on areas several dozen miles inland, and the like, what we got were a bunch of blow-dried local television anchors and weather-guessers orgasmically screaming about a monster category five hurricane heading our way and bringing with it certain death and destruction to the city of Houston. The media also focused on the evacuation story, which in my opinion created a very clear implication of "everybody else is getting out why they still can, and you should be getting out, too."

With that said, I want to make it clear that I do not fault anybody for their decision to leave, regardless of their location. The local media breathlessly kept repeating that Houston was faced with the prospect of a direct hit from the third-strongest Gulf hurricane on record, and people did what they obviously thought was best at the time, which was to get out of the path of the destructive storm. As I've said in a previous post, the fact that trees were being toppled and power outages were occurring here in Houston from a storm whose center was one hundred miles to the east - making landfall in another state - proves just how massive, powerful and deadly these things are, and people took this storm seriously. My own family members were among those who fled; Lori decided to take Kirby and relocate to Dallas Wednesday morning, and my mother took off to Temple later that day. Both of them, fortunately, got out before the bulk of the traffic built up.

So perhaps the people who got out didn't overreact; the media, however, clearly did. Objective information regarding the storm, and the evacuation process, should had been clearer earlier on, so people who were not in high-risk areas could have made a more informed decision before they decided to flee.
There's also the risk that the media-driven hype over Rita will desensitize people, especially those living in high-risk areas, to the threats raised by future storms. These folks will remember the chaotic evacuation process, and the much-ado-about-nothing shrillness heaped upon Rita, and make the risky decision to ride the next storm out. Houston might not be so lucky next time.

There's a flip side to this as well: just as the people who evacuated the region do not deserved to be criticized, the people who decided to stay, such as myself, do not deserved to be criticized either. I've seen comments on various local forums that the people who stayed behind were "lucky rather than smart" - the clear implication being that those who decided to hunker down and ride it out were somehow stupid - and I've even received criticism from family members for deciding to stay. I find these insinuations and criticism unfair and even insulting.

I sheltered in place at my house, which is a good fifty miles inland, it is not located in a floodplain, and it is not in a designated evacuation zone. My own plan, as I have said, was to move up to the in-laws' house in the northwestern portion of the county, using local roads, if the hurricane remained a category four or five and continued its track towards Galveston or Freeport. That would have put another thirty miles between myself and the coast. However, as Rita's projected area of landfall veered off to the east, I decided to remain here. In retrospect, it was the correct decision for me.

Obviously, I'm not saying I'll make the same decision next time. Each storm is different, and the "stay or go" decision will be made on a case-by-case basis given the information available regarding the storm's path and strength. But my neighborhood is not in a high-risk area, and I don't think I need to add to the horrific traffic jams by reflexively evacuating from a hurricane whose landfall, which has a margin of error of hundreds of miles, is three days away.

I guess my point is this: if you decided to evacuate, you did so based on the information you had available at the time (although I believe some of that information was needlessly exaggerated) and you did what you thought was in your best interests. Likewise, if you decided to stay (provided you were not in a coastal evacuation zone or other are of obvious risk), you also did so based on what you thought was in your best interests. Nobody deserves to be criticized for their decision to stay or go. Fortunately, things worked out for the best for Houston (not so much for Lake Charles, Beaumont or Port Arthur, obviously, and I wish those communities a speedy recovery). All we can do is learn from this and move on, because hurricanes are a fact of life along the Gulf Coast and there will certainly be a "next time."

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. With the tenth anniversary of Rita only a month away, it's worth noting that, in terms of human suffering, the evacuation was catastrophic. 107 people perished during the exodus: that's more than were killed by Hurricane Carla, Hurricane Alicia, Tropical Storm Alison and Hurricane Ike - combined.)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Rita Update II

It's now 2 am, and amazingly enough I still have electricity. I expect to lose it at any moment, however, as the wind continues to pick up. Otherwise, things are going as well as can be expected. No structural damage or falling tree limbs yet, and the rain hasn't even been too heavy thus far.

The rain and gusting winds we're experiencing here are being generated by a system whose center is well over 100 miles to the east of here. It really makes you understand just how massive and just how powerful hurricanes are. They are awesome in every sense of the word.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Rita Update

It's about 8 pm, and the outermost rainbands of the hurricane are now reaching my neighborhood. The rainfall is really very mild at this point and the winds are still rather gentle. This will not remain the case for long, however; heavier rainbands are quickly approaching and I expect the really nasty stuff to start hitting in another two or three hours.

Yesterday Rita's projected area of landfall moved to the other side of Houston and it now appears that it's going to hit Port Authur. That puts Houston on the so-called "dry" side of the hurricane. This is not to diminish the weather we're going to get here - hurricanes are dangerous no matter what side of them you're on - but being to the west of a hurricane is better than taking a direct hit or being just to its east.

Danny and I are staying where we are. I think we'll be okay, although I'm worried about the tree in front of the house.

I'll try to provide another update in a few hours if I still have electricity. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Rita approaches

Lori took herself and the kid to Dallas, but I've decided to ride the storm out here at the house as long as the predicted landfall location remains south of Freeport. My brother-in-law Danny will be here with me.

I expect there to be some wind damage here, especially to trees, and there might even be some street flooding like this neighborhood experienced during Alison, but at this point in time I feel that I am far enough inland and the storm's projected path is far enough to the south that I do not expect major structural failure to occur.

If the situation changes (i.e. the projected storm track moves significantly northward) then Danny and I will probably relocate to to his and Lori's parents' house on the northwest side of town.

I will try to post updates, although I expect to lose electricity at some point. Wish me luck.

(Retroblogged August 23, 2015.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Coogs begin 2005 season with a win

Last Saturday, the Coogs notched their first win of the season by defeating the Sam Houston State Bearkats 31-10 at Robertson Stadium. Some might say that a win over a I-AA school is meaningless, but I’d have to disagree in this instance because, let’s face it, wins of any kind have been hard to come by for the Coogs lately. Besides, Sam is a pretty good I-AA squad, having gone all the way to the I-AA semifinals last season (a football playoff! What a concept!), and they always give the Coogs a good game. So I’ll gladly take it.

Play was sloppy at times, and the Coogs still have some problem areas that must be addressed: penalties, special teams miscues (several kickoffs went out of bounds) and turnovers. A better pass rush is a must, too. It will be a long season if these concerns aren’t remedied in a hurry.

Houston has a short week to prepare for their next opponent, the Texas-El Paso Miners. Friday night's nationally-televised game at the Sun Bowl is going to be tough, and it will be a good barometer of how good (or bad) the Coogs actually are.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.)

Astroworld calls it quits.

At the end of the 2005 season in October, Six Flags is going to shut the 37-year-old theme park down and sell the property on which it sits. Six Flags claims that rising land values in the area have made the property worth more than the park itself, which has suffered from declining attendance, and that parking disputes with the folks at Reliant are also to blame. For whatever reason, a Houston landmark is disappearing.

I can’t say I’m surprised. The park has been on the downhill for a long time. It was aging and poorly-maintained, and was unable to expand beyond its 109-acre footprint. Attendance declined as the park suffered from a proliferation of new Six Flags properties in places like San Antonio, Louisiana and Mexico (whose thrill-seeking population no longer had to travel to Houston to get their roller-coaster fix) as well as a reputation as a gang-banger hangout. The exorbitant admission price (currently $42 for an adult) also kept increasing numbers of people away.

I have mixed feelings about AstroWorld’s demise. When I was a kid, I spent many a summer day there, riding the Greezed Lightnin’ and the XLR-8. When I was in college, I spent the summers of 1992 and 1994 working there, being treated like crap for minimum wage. (Somewhere in the Bush family photo album is a picture, taken during the 1992 Republican National Convention, of Bugs Bunny posing with a bunch of George and Barbara’s grandchildren and well as a few secret service agents. The guy in the Bugs Bunny costume would be me.) I hadn't set foot in the theme park for a long time, and really have had no desire to do so (my tolerance of long lines, brutal heat and overpriced food has waned somewhat since I was a kid), although I always envisioned that one day I’d be taking Kirby there. It looks like that’s not going to happen.

The site on which the property stands is has excellent access to transportation, since it is bounded by Kirby, Loop 610 and the light rail line. It is in a good location, near the Reliant complex and the Texas Medical Center. Given the fact that over 100 contiguous acres of property are hard to come by in this area, I’d have to say that this property probably won’t be on the market for long. Hopefully some sort of well-designed mixed-use development will appear there, with retail along the 610 frontage and a transit-oriented component adjacent to the light rail station.

AstroWorld was originally developed by Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz as part of the so-called "Astrodomain" that included the Astrodome and Astroarena. It opened in 1968, three years after the Astrodome, and was purchased by Six Flags in 1975. The park’s signature ride, the Texas Cyclone, opened a year later. I think I’ll miss the Cyclone most of all.

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. I wrote an article very similar to this in 2008. The anticipated redevelopment of the park's site has never occurred and, with the exception of its use as overflow parking during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the land still sits vacant. But I still don't miss that place.)

More on the future of New Orleans

Joel Garreau, author of Edge City and The Nine Nations of North America, wrote an article in Sunday's Washington Post exploring the future - or lack thereof - of The Big Easy. It is interesting to compare his take on the city's future with George Friedman's Stratfor article that I referenced last week. Friedman argues that, since a port at the mouth of the Mississippi River is critically important to the nation's economy, and ports need cities to support them, New Orleans will be rebuilt. Garreau agrees with the need for the port but is not convinced of the need for a city, because modern port operations are extremely automated and do not employ enough people to support a large city. Garreau argues that “a thriving port is not the same thing as a thriving city” and that New Orleans, with its high office vacancy rates, tourist-reliant economy, and crippling poverty, was anything but thriving. “The city of New Orleans has for years resembled Venice -- a beloved tourist attraction but not a driver of global trade,” he writes. Garreau looks back at Babylon, Carthage and Pompeii to remind us that “cities are not forever:”

What the city of New Orleans is really up against, however, is the set of economic, historic, social, technological and geological forces that have shaped fixed settlements for 8,000 years. Its necessity is no longer obvious to many stakeholders with the money to rebuild it, from the oil industry, to the grain industry, to the commercial real estate industry, to the global insurance industry, to the politicians.

Garreau is among those (such as myself) who suggest that New Orleans, with its population scattered across the nation – “the biggest resettlement in American history,” according to Rice professor Stephen Kleinberg in this Christian Science Monitor article – might end up much like Galveston did after the 1900 hurricane. “Galveston today is a charming tourist and entertainment destination, but it never returned to its old commercial glory,” he writes. “In part, that’s because the leaders of Houston took one look at what the at what the hurricane had wrought and concluded a barrier island might not be the best place to build the major metropolis that a growing east central Texas was going to need.”

This sentiment is echoed by an article in Tuesday’s USA Today regarding the instant boomtown of Baton Rouge, which is currently Louisiana’s largest city as well as its commercial center. The city is in the process of absorbing 200,000 new residents and at least two thousand businesses from New Orleans. Displaced companies are setting up shop in whatever space they can find, even abandoned grocery stores, and rental rates are skyrocketing. Homes are selling, oftentimes sight unseen, for $500,000 in cash. The city is choked with traffic. Schools are overcrowded. Hotels are all booked. Airlines are adding flights from Chicago, St. Louis and Newark. 

While Baton Rouge residents worry the boom may be temporary until New Orleans is rebuilt, the aftermath of another deadly hurricane may point to a different outcome.

A devastating 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, forced a massive exodus of people and businesses to what was then a small community: Houston. Now, Baton Rouge is competing head-to-head with Houston, the fourth-largest city, with a population of 2 million, for businesses that are thinking twice about returning to New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina will be remembered for a lot of things, from its unspeakable devastation to its horrific human toll to its virtual destruction of a major American city to the miserably bungled federal, state and local response in its wake. But it will also be remembered for the profound demographic, economic and social changes it created – not just along the Gulf Coast but nationwide – as it scattered hundreds of thousands of displaced people across the country in a matter of weeks and permanently altered the urban hierarchy of the region, as cities like Baton Rouge, Jackson, Shreveport and Houston absorbed the people and businesses of New Orleans.The true effects of Katrina can only be accurately evaluated in retrospect, but its hard not to believe that this disaster will go down as one of the most monumental and pivotal events in US history. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015. Ten years later, how accurate was this? It turns out that the hurricane's effect on Baton Rouge was short-lived; Katrina evacuees eventually returned to New Orleans and Baton Rouge's 2010 population was not significantly larger than its 2000 population. Those flights to places like Chicago, Newark and Denver were canceled a few years after they were started.)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The future of New Orleans

As the floodwaters are pumped out and the decomposing bodies are collected, the slow and difficult task of rebuilding this ruined city will begin. Amid the wall-to-wall media coverage of the aftermath of Katrina – an event which will almost certainly go down as the worst natural disaster in this nation’s history – a great deal of discussion regarding the future of New Orleans, and by extension the entire Gulf Coast, is occurring. What will a rebuilt New Orleans look like? Will it be able to retain its unique culture in the wake of this calamity? How many people will return to the city? Should the city, which sits below sea level, be rebuilt at all? These questions have spawned numerous articles in numerous publications, from the Boston Globe to the Chicago Tribune to the Dallas Morning News to USA Today. Even local bloggers are engaging in the discussion.

Most fundamentally, does it make sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild the flooded city at all? Jack Shafer at slate.com says "no" while George Friedman at stratfor.com says “yes.” Friedman’s argument is that New Orleans “is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where a city must exist” due to its location at the mouth of the Mississippi River. There needs to be a place where the river barges carrying goods and materials from the Great Plains and the Midwest are  offloaded onto ocean-going vessels, and vice-versa. The Port of New Orleans is critically important to our nation’s economy, and for that reason the city that supports it will return, “because it has to.”

Even if New Orleans is rebuilt – and I think that much of it will be – it will clearly never be the same city it was before Katrina obliterated it. For one, it will be much smaller. It’s impossible to stay at this time just how many of those who called New Orleans home on August 28th will return once it is safe to do so, but it is clear that many of those who have left – some having been evacuated to places as far away as Utah or Alaska – have nothing to return to and very likely will not be coming back. Those that do return to the region are likely to choose a location that is not as vulnerable to tropical storms. That’s why I believe that Baton Rouge, which in the same general region but many miles upriver from New Orleans, and whose population has been swelled by refugees from New Orleans, will probably eventually surpass New Orleans to become Louisiana’s largest and most dominant city, much the same way Houston overtook Galveston to become Texas’s major city after the 1900 Hurricane. 

Houston’s future, likewise, will almost certainly be different. A New York Times article (reprinted in the International Herald Tribune) declares that “no city in the United States is in a better spot to turn Katrina’s tragedy into opportunity” and notes that corporations are already moving their headquarters from New Orleans to Houston, even if only on a temporary basis. Added to this is the influx of tens of thousands of evacuees from New Orleans, many of whom are likely to stay. There will be a short-term economic boost as evacuated businesses fill vacant office space, evacuated residents fill empty residential space, and millions of dollars in federal aid for the displaced flows into Houston. The long-term economic, demographic and cultural effects of Katrina on Houston are less clear but are nonetheless likely to be positive. And the positive coverage Houston has received from the media regarding the city’s generosity and compassion for the victims of Katrina is likely to boost the city’s national image as well. 

(Retroblogged on August 23, 2015.  Unfortunately, a lot of these links are now dead. The tenth anniversary of Katrina is approaching and I will probably write something about it later this week.)