Coastal Louisiana Community Struggling 10 Years After Rita

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

10 years later, officials still learning from Hurricane Rita.

—The Storm: Rita, at one point a category 5 storm, hit the Texas/Louisiana border as a category 3 hurricane, with winds topping 120 mph and pushing a storm surge that reached 20 feet in some places. Hitting the U.S. just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, most Americans paid little attention to Rita, which made landfall Sept. 24, 2005, in a far less populated area along the Texas-Louisiana border. And with Hurricane Rita – documented as the strongest Gulf storm on record – on track to bash East Texas, Houstonians heeded the call to evacuate.

The 2005 hurricane season is most remembered for Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf Coast 10 years ago this week, killing 1,500 people and forever changing the city of New Orleans. This track represented a worst-case scenario for Houston, with the stronger northeast quadrant of the storm pushing a massive wall of water into Galveston Bay and up the Houston Ship Channel into the heart of the region’s chemical industrial complex. It was ten years ago when many East Texans were full of fear and anxiety as Hurricane Rita made landfall along the Texas/Louisiana state line, near Sabine Pass.

At least 11 deaths in Texas and Louisiana were blamed on the storm, which caused more than $11 billion in damage and sparked one of the largest evacuations on record. The storm was first expected to strike southern Texas, then the massive Houston metropolitan area before actually making landfall close to the Louisiana border. —Housing Damage: More than 23,600 homes were deemed severely damaged or destroyed in southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas, while another 39,000 had roof damage and received FEMA’s blue tarps. In the Houston area, the muddled flight from the city killed almost as many people as Rita did. an estimated 2.5 million people hit the road ahead of the storm’s arrival, creating some of the most insane gridlock in U.S. history. That meant cities from Brownsville to Corpus Christi to Houston were sending their residents fleeing to points further inland, with 3 million people hitting the road at nearly the same time.

On September 21, 2005, just three days before making landfall, Rita briefly strengthened into a category five hurricane in the south central Gulf of Mexico, with sustained winds of 180 mph. Cars that ran out of gas were stranded by the dozens, several died from heat stroke and a van carrying nursing home evacuees exploded, killing 23 patients. Harris County emergency officials had predicted 800,000 to 1.2 million people would evacuate from vulnerable areas, but instead about 2.5 million packed up and left the region. As Katrina’s 10-year anniversary was marked by a week of events including visits from three American presidents, in communities along the western coast where people still live in small trailers in their yards because they can’t afford to rebuild, Hurricane Rita’s wrath is ever-present. “People would like to move back. Madhu Beriwal, founder and president of the disaster management consulting firm IEM, said Texas officials were simply not ready for the size of the evacuation.

As the storm approached, they ordered phased evacuations to get people out in manageable groups, and they implemented “contra-flow” traffic on highways, meaning all lanes are used to evacuate people in one direction. Thibodeaux hoped Rita would continue southwesterly and miss Orange County until it turned up the coast. “We reviewed the evacuation routes, the transportation functions with the buses and the drivers, setting up an evacuation center at the new (Orange County) Administration Building,” Thibodeaux said. “We triaged out people with special transportation needs. The problem, Beriwal said, is the state started those plans far too late, leaving a mess on the roads. “You have to commend them for trying, but there were some problems with trying to do that in the midst of an evacuation,” she said. “It wasn’t successful because that’s a very complicated thing.” The state responded by preparing plans for future evacuations and, in 2007, creating the Texas Statewide Mutual Aid System to allow local governments to help each other more easily. 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. Calcasieu and Vermilion parishes, which also took direct hits from Rita, have grown since the storm, with Calcasieu’s population reaching 197,000 and Vermilion at nearly 60,000.

Census Bureau, The Rita Report commissioned by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Insurance Information Institute, the LSU AgCenter and Associated Press archives. Nevertheless, Berger wrote, “state, county and city officials were unprepared.” The haphazard evacuation plan – no contraflow lanes; inadequate policies to keep gas flowing – created bedlam. Greg Fountain, the emergency management coordinator for Jefferson County, Texas, said that plan includes contracts with fuel distributors and gas stations to ensure that there’s gas available along evacuation routes.

Rita quickly weakened into a tropical storm just twelve hours after landfall, but not before knocking out power to thousands of East Texans as a result of the hurricane force wind gusts. USA Today states that even if Rita is the “forgotten hurricane” it imparted some important lessons, leading officials to fix evacuation plans, build improved shelters and update the building codes in Louisiana.

As people sweltered on the freeways, in some cases for more than 24 hours, and waited in long lines to buy groceries and fill up their cars, Mother Nature did them no favors. Rita spread devastation across what portion of Louisiana’s coastline Katrina had spared, with damage reaching 150 miles east of where the storm came ashore.

The county also has contracts with construction firms that can bring heavy equipment, debris-removal operations, companies that provide emergency food and water and others that provide portable bathrooms. There were a few dissenting voices — notably Kemah Mayor Bill King, who was trying to raise the alarm about lackluster evacuation planning — but for the most part the state of Texas felt it was ready. Bourriaque said many of the residents who lost their homes were upset that the Louisiana legislature implemented new building codes that included requirements to elevate homes built in flood zones. “The feeling was, ‘We’re trying to survive and you’re telling me I can’t build my house back that’s been in the family for six generations?'” he said. “That’s $275,000 for a house that could be built on the ground for $75,000.” But Bourriaque said Hurricane Ike showed how valuable those new codes were. Of those seven major hurricanes (defined as category three strength or stronger), five became category four storms, and four storms became category five hurricanes, the strongest intensity on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale.

During Rita, 50% of the county’s homes were destroyed or so badly damaged that they couldn’t be salvaged. “The homes that were built post-Rita to the elevation standards survived Ike and were minimally impacted,” he said. “Not even losing siding or shingles.” Despite all the work to improve responses to hurricanes following Rita, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said not enough localities have taken heed. The report, according to area and state emergency officials, likely will say that the Houston-Galveston area is largely prepared for a major hurricane, although a few improvements are needed.

Fugate said FEMA, the National Hurricane Center and the Army Corps of Engineers work together to constantly update risk assessments for every coastal city from Texas to Maine. But we realized the quickest way back on four feet was through the citizens themselves,” he said. “Orange County was the hardest hit by Rita and we were the quickest to get back and be operational. Although McCraw will not reveal his findings before turning them over to Perry, he said he was “impressed” by local evacuation plans and that he believed those plans were “more coordinated than what’s been represented” by critics. Residents of southwest Louisiana lamented what they called “Rita amnesia,” saying it took them longer to get aid because they struggled to draw attention to their devastation. “This place, it was like a bomb was dropped on it. After Rita Texas did get its act together in regard to evacuations, developing contraflow plans and ensuring the availability of gasoline supplies along freeways.

These steps will help, but in truth, in preparing for hurricanes governments are somewhat like the military in that they’re always preparing for the last war. New Orleans was talked about so much, and all these little towns, it was all wiped out.” It took two years for the local grocery store to reopen in Erath, and the strike of Hurricane Ike in 2008 re-flooded homes that hadn’t been elevated.

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