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
, 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.)