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Duck and cover, or head for the hills?

I have a feeling that this is a subject we’ll visit again and again in the coming years.

More than half of all evacuees from Hurricane Rita lived on ground high enough to avoid a surge of water from even the most powerful storms.

Some hurricane experts say most of these 1.5 million “shadow evacuees” must heed the mantra of emergency planners — run from water, hide from wind — if Houston’s next evacuation is to avoid the myriad problems of Rita’s exodus.

Marc Levitan, director of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center in Baton Rouge, La., and Walter Maestri, former director of emergency management for Jefferson Parish, La., both said the key is offering inland residents credible options for sheltering in place.

“There are two main strategies for reducing exposure to hurricane hazards: evacuation and sheltering,” Levitan said during a recent hurricane conference at Rice University. “Houston has embraced one, but it has, apparently, forgotten the other one.”

Added Maestri in an interview, “With evacuations we are facing an impossible task. It cannot be done. Getting everyone out safely and quickly is like asking how many people we can get to dance on the head of a pin.”

I don’t doubt that most of Houston has little to worry about from a storm-surge perspective, and that sheltering is the safe, rational, and cost-efficient solution for the vast majority of folks here. But speaking from my own personal experience, there are factors beyond flood waters that go into everyone’s own accounting of the risks. It’s wise for the city to preach and teach preparedness, and to have places for people who can’t shelter in their own residences to go. It’s foolish to think that everyone who “should” shelter in place by some rational calculation will do so. It’s foolish for the city to base its emergency plans on that as well. That’s all I’m saying. SciGuy has more.

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  1. Kent from Waco says:

    Oh no doubt most people would survive a a monster storm, even in flood prone areas. I don’t think that’s the only point. If I were single I’d probably sit tight and button down unless I was literally living on the beach or in a surge zone. But with young kids?

    What do you do the morning after a Cat5 when bridges, trees and powerlines are down on all the major highways for 100 miles so you are trapped, there is no power or water for a week, no gasoline or groceries, and it is 100 degrees and humid? Do you really want to be looking after small kids for a week in those conditions when you could be waiting the storm out at some friend’s house in say, Waco?

  2. muse says:

    I tried to evacuate from Rita on Wed. night with reasons similar to yours. 13 hours later and I wasn’t even to I-10 (I was on the Grand Parkway) and I turned around and came home. I’ll NEVER evacuate again. I got stuck in hours of traffic getting across town this past Friday – workers getting off early for Memorial Day and heading home/out of town – and it was total gridlock just over that.

    I am one of those that needs to wise up to what it will mean to shelter in place. I’ll be here without electricity and with wind damage to the house. Will be fun, no?!

  3. Jeff Hooton says:

    I’ve lived in Houston for 60 years through several big storm events. After Katrina, Bill White and the Harris Co Emergency manager Frank ??? were on tv and the emergency mgr, talking about metro Houston above storm surge elevation, said “we consider Houston a place to evacuate to, not evacuate from.”
    Then with Rita bearing down, Bill White did NOT announce storm shelters within the city until the night of landfall, AFTER the evac disaster had occurred (White said at the time he didn’t want to give people a reason to stay). Nobody seemed to notice this in the afterglow of White’s competent leadership with the Katrina refugees, but IMO it was irresponsible.

  4. bill says:

    From the perspective of being several hundred miles away it did look like something of a panic to me. I think it was a combination of New Orleans and having a considerable time period of media coverage and anticipation.

    In 1983 i was a single grad student living in Montrose. As I recall we did not have much warning and I did not know anyone who evacuated. my memories of the experience are mostly positive. the storm was exciting and afterwards when the electricity was out there were front-yard cookouts and neighborhood get-togethers for several days while people got rid of their food before it spoiled.

    of course i was young and had no responsibilities.