Coastal Louisiana community struggling 10 years after Rita | us news

Coastal Louisiana community struggling 10 years after Rita

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

10 years later, officials still learning from Hurricane Rita.

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.BEAUMONT — Most Southeast Texas families remember exactly what they were doing a decade ago — watching weather updates from a safe location or bracing their homes as best they could against Hurricane Rita.

And with Hurricane Rita – documented as the strongest Gulf storm on record – on track to bash East Texas, Houstonians heeded the call to evacuate. Carl Griffith — the former Jefferson County judge who called for a mandatory evacuation in the days leading to Hurricane Rita striking Southeast Texas with winds of 120 miles per hour — said Tuesday afternoon it frightens him how many Jefferson County residents chose to stay despite the evacuation order. “It’s scary to know there are so many people who stayed and would do it again. 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. In the 10 years since Rita struck as a Category 3 hurricane, Texas emergency management officials have redesigned their evacuation plans, local leaders have started building new shelters and Louisiana legislators have updated their antiquated building codes. “A major lesson?

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. The storm was first expected to strike southern Texas, then the massive Houston metropolitan area before actually making landfall close to the Louisiana border. We still have to be fearful of what would happen with a Cat 5 and not get complacent because it hasn’t happened yet.” Brad Penisson, a captain with the Beaumont Fire Department, said there were helpless moments for the first responders who stayed during Hurricane Rita — something all residents thinking of riding out future storms should consider. “The night Hurricane Rita hit, there was a structure fire and the closest we could get our trucks to it was two blocks away.

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. Three houses burned down, and as a firefighter to watch and not be able to do anything — that’s my job, and I couldn’t do it.” “We were able to get our people out, and our plans are continuing to improve through that (the Sabine-Neches Chiefs Association) and our emergency planning meetings.

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. 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. Joe Deshotel said he’s reminded of Texas’ progress since Rita every time he travels to Austin and sees the contraflow lanes to get coastal residents to safety quickly in the event of another devastating storm. “We made eight lanes going toward San Antonio and Austin in case of evacuation,” Deshotel said. “With all the new contraflow lanes, that 14-hour trip it took to get to Austin during Rita will take much less time.” Debbra Mamula, policy adviser to Lt. 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. 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. 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. It’s up to you to share them, so we can all learn.” Emily Ramshaw, editor of the Texas Tribune and moderator of the Tuesday panel discussion, invited all the attendees to stay after the program and share their hurricane stories with the panelists and on video for a Texas Tribune project. “It’s said we learn from experience.

But if it’s painful or expensive, it’s best to learn from others,” Kenneth Evans, Lamar University president, joked. “Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t always give an option.” 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.

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. 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.

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