Thursday, September 24, 2015

Remembering Rita

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Rita. Although the storm wrought significant devastation to the Beaumont area, it will best be remembered for the panic it triggered in Houston. As the storm, with its 175 mph winds, barreled towards the city, people with visions of Katrina fresh in their minds panicked and made an unorganized, headlong retreat out of town. Highways were gridlocked; people died.

Ten years ago I wondered if the people of Houston overreacted to the storm:
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."
The evacuation map that the local television news should have been showing every 3 minutes during their Rita coverage.
While the Chronicle's Eric Berger doesn't think Houston overreacted to Rita - the storm "scared the bejesus out of me," he writes - he does place blame on elected officials and emergency preparedness personnel for the deadly disaster that was the botched evacuation:
State, county and city officials were unprepared. While the storm’s forecast was dire, public officials made no real effort to discern between those who must evacuate — residents in low-lying areas vulnerable to storm surge — and those on higher ground who should ride out the storm.

Emergency planners also never established a plan for contraflow, so inbound lanes of freeways sat unused. Gas stations ran dry, both in communities where people were evacuating from, and locations along the clogged freeways.

As a result, of the 113 deaths in Texas only six could be directly attributed to the storm, whereas the other 107 deaths were caused indirectly, primarily due to to the haphazard evacuation process.
Eric, however, doesn't mention the local media's role in the disaster that was the Rita evacuation. This isn't to say that he, as a member of the local media, was part of the problem; Berger has actually been one of the more level-headed news sources when it comes to hurricanes. But any narrative of the clusterfuck that was the Rita evacuation that mentions poor preparation and mixed messaging by local officials but fails to explore the local media's role is simply incomplete. As Texas Monthly's John Nova Lomax recalled earlier this year:
Hyping weather events is not unknown in other cities, of course, but it’s unlikely that any other place has suffered a tragedy as serious as Houston’s Rita evacuation, when incorrect and/or possibly overblown weather forecasting led to more Texans dying than during Allison, Ike, Alicia, and Carla combined: 107 died in accidents, in fires, or of exposure, trapped under a broiling sun at the side of an interstate in one of the largest traffic jams in American history.
I'm not exactly sure where Lomax gets the "combined" figure from; the number of people killed in the Rita evacuation is indeed more than the number of people that were killed by Hurricane Carla (34), Hurricane Alicia (21) and Tropical Storm Allison (21) combined, but when you add the 84 people killed by Hurricane Ike in Texas, you reach 160 fatalities. That does not diminish the fact that 107 people - one of whom was the mother of a good friend of mine - needlessly perished in a tragedy created by fear, poor planning, poor messaging and media over-hype.

I clearly remember some television reporters at the time claiming that the City of Houston and Harris County were under mandatory evacuation orders - something that simply was not true. At no time did I ever hear a reporter, an anchor, a weatherman repeat the mantra that anybody living in this region should know by heart: run from the water, hide from the wind. It led to chaos.
Those in flood-prone coastal areas were wise to flee. It was all those who got in their way—people from places like Sugar Land, West University, and Tomball—who created the problems. Of the estimated 3 million who fled, only 1.2 million or so had been advised to. And as Mayor Bill White pointed out at the time, families were taking all of their cars, fearing that their houses would blow down and their cars would be submerged.
North and west of areas like Clear Lake, this made little logical sense, but logic had drowned a couple of weeks earlier. The entire city was then in the grip of Katrina Terror: a fear that our city would be plunged beneath brown waters, that law and order would wash away, that looters would pillage the corner Fiesta Marts and Spec’s, hauling away their ill-gotten swag. That once the mighty Rita came through, the winds were gonna bring down trees, the rains would flood the town and bust the levees, and then...

Well, nobody seemed to snap to the fact that Houston had no levees, nor does our city sit in a basin at or below sea level.

And so hundreds of thousands of people fled who had no need to flee, even if Rita had hit Houston head-on. There were the 23 senior citizens who burned to death on a faulty chartered bus while being shuttled from their facility in Bellaire, where it barely even rained, to Dallas. A 51-year-old man and two of his children lost their lives when their car overturned en route from Dallas to their hometown of Sugar Land, a suburb well beyond the threat of storm surge. A Houston toddler was killed along the side of Highway 59 near Lufkin when another Houstonian fell asleep at the wheel after twenty hours on the road and ran her over. These were tragedies, made all the worse by the fact that none of these people should have been where they were when they died. 
I live right around the corner from the nursing home where those 23 elderly people were being evacuated from: a facility that is fifty miles inland and not in an evacuation area, even for a category 5 storm.

Has the region learned its lesson? In terms of evacuation procedures, I would like to think so. We now have a contraflow evacuation plan that did not exist when Rita approached. Local officials are better coordinated as well; I think they did a great job getting the right messages out when Hurricane Ike hit three years later. But a lot of people have moved to Houston since Rita and might not have the experience or knowledge regarding whether to stay or go when a storm approaches. As for the local media, well, the best way to deal with their hyperbole is to simply pay them no attention.

It's worth remembering the disaster of the Rita evacuation, in order to ensure that it never happens again. The Chronicle's gallery of images of gridlock is here. My blog entries as Rita approached are here, here and here.

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