ARE WE READY?
Houston's storm plan needs work
City leaders recognize that the document doesn't address scenarios like the one unfolding
By TERRI LANGFORD
Sept. 4, 2005
For years, New Orleans thought it would beat the odds of a Category 4 storm.
And for years, Houston thought it knew almost everything there was to know about evacuation and sheltering nearby residents from a hurricane.
Now, it turns out, both cities were wrong.
As more than 100,000 Hurricane Katrina victims poured into the folds of America's fourth-largest city, this national emergency forced even the most storm-savvy among local leaders to realize Houston's hurricane playbook may need an overhaul.
"There was no emergency plan for the destruction of one of America's largest cities immediately to our east. Not the federal, state and local level," Houston Mayor Bill White said. "I don't think, incidentally, that it's principally a local responsibility for doing that plan, nor am I finger-pointing.
"If someone here had forecasted the destruction of New Orleans, then I'd like to join your church."
Despite a flurry of hurricane preparedness in this state in the past year after Texas officials watched four hurricanes pummel Florida in 2004, serious gaps in the overall evacuation plan continue to exist, experts say. And this week's transfer of Katrina victims into semi-permanent housing at the Astrodome highlighted how sheltering options during a disaster have to be reassessed.
Until this week, little public attention was paid to the city's dryly titled "City of Houston Emergency Management Plan," which barely refers to semi-permanent housing options.
"Evacuees normally return to their homes as soon as the danger has passed. Hence, most shelters are closed quickly and returned to normal use," the plan reads. Neither the Astrodome nor any other specific facility is referenced as a place to house evacuees.
"Sheltering may include congregate sheltering or the use of commercial facilities, such as motels and hotels, as shelters for individuals or families," the plan states. "Shelters are intended as a safe haven from impending disaster and/or short-term emergency housing until disaster victims can return to their homes or locate alternate housing after a disaster. Whether before or after a disaster, shelters will be located in safe areas and will provide appropriate services."
The plan doesn't get much more specific than that, nor is it much more specific about food, for example:
"ARC (American Red Cross) through agreement will: Provide emergency food."
To be fair, the Houston emergency plan is designed to be general to give officials the flexibility they need to address any kind of disaster, not just one posed by weather. However, the Katrina disaster presents a unique set of problems.
"We're dealing right now with something that this country has not known in my lifetime: a domestic refugee situation," White said as he faced housing 25,000 evacuees being transferred from the Superdome to the Astrodome and Reliant Center's exhibition hall. "I think this will be a learning experience. Some of this is a work in progress."
Problem still exists
In February, the Houston Chronicle reported serious problems in evacuating the elderly, disabled and poor from a storm target. Seven months later, that problem continues to exist in Galveston, whose very location makes it the most vulnerable in a hurricane.
"We still haven't been able to really come up with a fine-tuned way, in my opinion, to deal with seniors, special-needs population and the economically disadvantaged," Galveston County Judge James Yarbrough said.
In Galveston County, at least 30,000 people do not have transportation to escape the threat of harm in the event of a serious storm. Complicating the evacuation process is that only one major highway goes in and out of Galveston Island.
White and Harris County officials freely acknowledged last week Katrina opened up a whole new set of disaster scenarios.
"We're trying things that we have never done before," said Paul Bettencourt, Harris County's tax assessor, who was leading some of the documentation efforts of the evacuees.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels did not return several calls from the Chronicle.
Watching the Katrina disaster unfold from Houston, officials saw some of the same problems they battle each time they advise residents to get out of harm's way.
"You can't make somebody move," White said. "I think many Americans will probably, the next time the mayor asks people to evacuate, we'll have more people evacuating."
But other issues were new for Houston and the nation.
"We also need to be thinking about what happens in terms of things where people cannot return to their homes within a certain period of time in this community," White said. "And I think this will be a learning experience for our community as we care for the needs of those who come from Louisiana."
Houston, which hasn't been affected by a Category 4 storm since 1961, never expected to face the kind of long-term housing needs such a storm would present.
"Our plan does not have designated shelter areas," said Dennis Storemski, Houston's chief of emergency management. "The city doesn't necessarily plan for that. The Red Cross is responsible for shelters. The Red Cross is the shelter component. FEMA will come in and figure out the long-term housing."
Before Katrina's 140 mph winds roared up the liquid runway that is the Gulf of Mexico, Houston-area leaders considered themselves somewhat well-schooled in managing natural disasters.
Though not as hurricane-scarred as Florida, Houston's storm history ranks among the nation's costliest. In 1983, Hurricane Alicia, which registered at Category 3, killed at least 18 in Houston and cost more than $2 billion in today's dollars. Four years ago, a mere tropical storm named Allison killed 22 and cost $5 billion.
1900 Galveston storm
Neither storm was able to keep Houston down for long. Ironically, the city owes its own rise and dominance to the fall of Galveston in the hurricane of 1900, a time before storms had names. Estimates put that death toll at more than 6,000.
Despite this havoc ancestry, however, it took Florida's hurricane quadruplets — Ivan, Charley, Jeanne and Frances — in 2004 to prompt Texas Gov. Rick Perry to call for a better assessment of hurricane readiness. In the year since Perry demanded a hurricane-readiness assessment in Texas, taxpayers have spent more than $2.5 million for weather-disaster planning through the Governor's Division of Emergency Management. That money paid for computer models of storms and town meetings held in coastal communities to stress the importance of evacuating early. Flood-prone highways have been earmarked for repairs by the state's transportation officials. And for the first time, because of legislation signed by Perry this year, mayors and county judges have mandatory evacuation powers.
It also paid for a single evacuation drill, the only one in Harris County so far, in which local officials ran through procedures they would follow if a Category 5 hurricane came through the area. Four other such "tabletop" drills have been held in other coastal areas.
"I would agree that the challenges are harder in the Houston and Galveston area," said Steve McCraw, director of the the Texas Office of Homeland Security.
Houston, more than 50 miles from the Gulf, sees itself as an evacuation destination, not a direct target for evacuations. Historically, that's not been an unreasonable assumption.
"Houston is not New Orleans," Storemski said. "I can't imagine having to evacuate the city of Houston."
'Doesn't take much' here
But that scenario is not out of the realm of possibility, said Carla Prater, associate director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University.
"It doesn't take much in Houston, it doesn't take a hurricane. It takes a bad thunderstorm. It's a real serious problem," Prater said of the threats posed by severe weather.
Houston sits on layers of concrete with few escape routes for excess water.
One good hurricane strike in Galveston could send floodwaters up its bayou system through the 55-mile-long ship channel that connects Galveston Bay to Houston.
"That's very real," Prater said. "Not a pretty thought."
Though Prater has high praise for Harris County's emergency management system, she said more fundamental issues need to be addressed in the wake of Katrina's chaos.
"There's not the level of coordination there needs to be in and around all the cities around Houston," Prater said.