Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Did Katrina Effect Cause Rita Overreaction?

The New York Times did a story last Saturday on the Rita evacuation in Texas: 'Katrina Effect' Pushed Texans Into Gridlock. The article points out that the psychological scars of Katrina were the reason why more people than estimated evacuated the Houston/Galveston area last week. In other words, if in the 3 weeks prior to Rita, we hadn't watched New Orleans fill with water, then 2.5 million people--double what was estimated--probably wouldn't have left. I'm inclined to agree, and that is not to say that anyone who left shouldn't have left:
The danger, it turned out, was not that too few would listen, but that too many did.

In interviews on Friday, state and local officials acknowledged a glaring flaw in their planning, the failure to account for the psychological effects of Hurricane Katrina, or what was instantly labeled "the Katrina effect."

"We had a lot more people evacuated than should have evacuated," said Frank E. Gutierrez, emergency management coordinator of Harris County, which includes Houston. "But because of Katrina, the damage that happened in Louisiana, a lot of people were scared."
Another factor in all of this was that none of the elected officials involved wanted to be the next Ray Nagin or Kathleen Blanco, and, of course, the President was trying to look like he was doing everything he could and to appear engaged, unlike during Katrina:
If anything, well-intentioned officials magnified the effect by repeatedly lacing evacuation pleas with reminders of the death toll and devastation in New Orleans.

"Don't follow the example of New Orleans," Mayor White pleaded on Wednesday.
There were definitely problems last week that cannot be denied, and believe me, I'm not trying to make excuses for anybody. What I worry about is that last week's problems will become the new benchmark for evacuating that area, instead of the exception. My wife (she grew up in the Houston area) worries that because the storm did not turn out to be as bad for Houston and Galveston, that next time people won't take the warnings seriously and many won't evacuate when they should. Mix in some memories of sitting on the road for 12 hours in the sorching heat (my sister-in-law and her husband spent 20 hours trying to get from Houston to Dallas), and you have, as they say, the recipe for disaster. The reaction to the traffic problems should have been more swift, no doubt. Maybe state and local officials can start with that. Also, OffTheKuff points out that FEMA is still having serious problems bringing relief to anyone.

After reading the NYTimes story, it becomes clear from this report from the governor's office, which addresses many of the problems that occurred, many of these issues were already known:
In September 2004, Gov. Rick Perry ordered the state's Office of Homeland Security to evaluate evacuation plans. The review, delivered in March, identified weaknesses, particularly in the "Houston-Galveston Evacuation Area."

The weaknesses included evacuation routes not wide enough to "handle large-scale movements of evacuees," routes that were too low and flood-prone, radio systems that cannot communicate with one another and inadequate monitoring of congestion.

The report made 18 recommendations. State officials said few had put been put into effect.

One recommendation was to install traffic counters on evacuation routes to monitor the heaviest traffic flows. Officials said they expected to have a plan for the counters by the end of the month.

A spokesman for Mr. Perry did not respond to telephone messages for comment.
Now the governor, in an attempt to make it look like he is on top of things, will convene a task force to address these same issues all over again. If the task force's job is to look over the prior report and make a few changes here or there, I think that's a good thing. If the purpose of this exercise is to completely reinvent the wheel using last week as the benchmark, I think it is a mistake. Every disaster will present its own special set of circumstances, so build in some flexibility. There are certainly things that can be learned from what happened with Rita, but I also believe implementing a plan that was set out during a time prior to last week's evacuation is probably the better course of action, rather than convening a new task force to start all over again.

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