Evacuation turns out to be practice for next hurricane

29th September 2005





Houston: Broken traffic lights hang over streets, tree branches litter lawns that had once been perfectly manicured. The day after Hurricane Rita skirted Houston's borders, the place feels like a ghost town.

America's fourth-largest city has just escaped its worst nightmare. Evacuation plans turned out to be practice should another hurricane dare to strike again.

Coming on the heels of the disastrous Hurricane Katrina, Rita caught Houstonians on full alert. City and county officials began implementing a plan for the largest evacuation in recent American history. Forty-eight hours before Rita's first roars, motorists took to their cars with elderly family members, children and pets.

Newspapers printed emergency checklists and radio stations listed businesses that still were pumping petrol.

Most of the 2.7 million residents who endured interminable traffic jams trying to escape may soon be able to return safely to their homes, expecting little more than blown tree branches and no electricity.

Due to decisive action on the part of city and county officials and the hurricane's change of course, much damage was avoided, but the massive highway gridlock raised questions on how the city would survive should another hurricane hit at full blast.

Before Rita's arrival, officials said that Houston was prepared.

"We have not done this kind of massive evacuation before, but we are ready for it," said Harris county judge Robert Eckels, whose jurisdiction includes Houston and many of the most unprotected surrounding areas.

On Wednesday, planes and helicopters began flying out the hospitals' most critical patients and police officers reported for emergency duty.

Houston mayor Bill White thanked residents for responding to emergency measures, such as computerised phone calls that rang residents in low-lying areas asking them to leave.

Few people took chances of re-enacting New Orleans, forsaking their homes and possessions to save their own lives.

To accommodate the exodus, the Texas department of transportation reversed the flow of traffic in a complicated manoeuvre that involved changing direction on 100 miles of major highway leading north to Dallas.

As difficult as that was, even more difficult was finding fuel on the road. Gas stations wrapped pump handles in plastic bags to signal they no longer had fuel.

Getting off the road became more important than getting out of town as the hurricane moved closer.

Just hours before Rita struck, hundreds of broken-down cars littered the highways.

Despite reports of some people choosing to stay there, eventually everyone took shelter, preventing unnecessary fatalities.

In light of the unnecessary deaths during Hurricane Katrina, rescue teams poured into Houston on the night Rita struck, heading to Reliant Centre, a huge sports complex and the same place where Hurricane Katrina victims had sought refuge.

That convoy brought four rescue teams, seven urban rescue teams, three boat strike teams, 25 US Coast Guard teams and more than 100 ambulances from all over the country.

By midnight, the government and emergency agencies such as the Red Cross were ready to assist victims.

Just hours before making landfall, Rita veered northeast, turning away from the city of four million, mitigating damage but posing the next challenge - the citizens' safe return.

Judge Eckels and mayor Bill White have outlined a scheduled return which will hopefully prevent the traffic chaos that clogged highways on Wednesday and Thursday.

Co-operation is expected, but some have already returned upon hearing of minimal damage.

As those now at home pick up branches and wait for power to return, they also prepare for what has become part of daily life - doing whatever possible to help their neighbours to the east.

© The Irish Times