Coastal Louisiana community struggling 10 years after Rita

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

10 years later, officials still learning from Hurricane Rita.

Besides marking the 10th anniversary of the devastating hurricanes Katrina and Rita, this year is the 100th anniversary of a deadly storm that struck in 1915, the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 (a storm that flooded New Orleans) and the 30th anniversary of Hurricane Juan in 1985 (a storm that caused widespread coastal flooding). 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.

Rita made landfall as a category 3 storm on September 24, 2005 leaving homes gutted, places of worship demolished and parts of Southwest Louisiana in ruin. “After seeing what happened in New Orleans it was an opportunity for us to show we can do it better and we can do it different and I think we did,” Calcasieu Parish Sheriff Tony Mancuso said. And with Hurricane Rita – documented as the strongest Gulf storm on record – on track to bash East Texas, Houstonians heeded the call to evacuate. Locations in Louisiana have seen more hurricane landfalls than any other place along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, according to Barry Keim, the Louisiana state climatologist. 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. WWNOs Jesse Hardman spoke with Parish administrator Ryan Bourriaque, whose family has spanned six generations in Southwestern Louisiana about Hurricane Rita, and how it changed his community.

The storm was first expected to strike southern Texas, then the massive Houston metropolitan area before actually making landfall close to the Louisiana border. 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.

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. Mancuso remembers firsthand the intensity as Rita pounded Calcasieu parish. “Three or four o’ clock in the morning we look outside and the fences in the jail are leaned over. 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.

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. 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. 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.

Everybody knew their part,” Mancuso added. “We cannot do it alone and that’s why having these briefings we’re all sitting together, we’re all having the administration of all the different departments saying we’re going to do this and it worked,” Daughdril said. “It was the best, worst time of my life. It taught me a lot about the men and women that work here,” Mancuso said. “I have great respect for them and admiration for them and confidence in them. 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 devastation prompted the federal government into building a massive levee system around New Orleans — a system that was partially complete when Katrina hit. 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.

Juan was an erratic storm that meandered over the Louisiana coast between Oct. 28 and Oct. 31, dropping torrential rains and caused flooding 35 miles inland from the coast. 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. 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. 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.

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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