Sunday, September 25, 2005

Rita Post-Mortem

Power has returned to Chez Rmj, which gladdens the hearts of all. 36 hours after it went out, and still the worst "damage" we have suffered.

Yard is a mess, but no worse than if a strong thunderstorm had gone through. We won't even get the rain we've needed, it now appears. Ah, well, can't look a gift horse in the mouth.

As for the "evacuation," much will be made of this in coming days. Indeed, it has begun:

The chaotic evacuations of New Orleans and Houston have prompted local officials across the country to take another look at plans for emptying their cities in response to a large-scale natural disaster or a terrorist attack. What they have found is not wholly reassuring.

All I can add is: No sh*t, Sherlock. A former FEMA official (from Clinton era, IIRC) was on NPR yesterday, repeating the gov't mantra (the one that makes all Americans HATE government) that "the public must be educated." Even Houston Mayor Bill White (whom I respect enormously after this. The man is the epitome of a governing official, especially in a crisis, or near-crisis, as this was) tried to blame the people for the mess that was the evacuation. Well, he tried a little, let's be fair. The fact is, when a government calls an evacuation, when it says "Run! Run for your lives! Run without thought! Run without meaning!", and NOAA feeds the TV and radio stations dreadful statistics about Cat 5 hurricanes, which they in turn inflate into "END OF THE WORLD" scenarios (where were running 24/7 down here, for days), gov't has no one to blame but itself when everyone, well: runs.

Look, I'll say this one last time: Houston has terrible traffic on the best of days. Anyone using I-10 or I-45 to go through town has to expect massive delays. A family member once left town on Friday night, and took 2+ hours to get out of the SMSA limits on I-45, and that was just because the road has been under construction since we moved here (it varies maddeningly between 2 lanes and 4 lanes, which creates enormous bottlenecks all the time). Those were the evacuation routes, but no plan was made at the state or county level to close those roads and control access to them to facilitate the evacuation. So it wasn't just that too may people in Houston decided to leave, too. The government called this thing, then said: "Okay, you're on your own!" Failure is not an option; it comes as standard equipment.

The plan sucked. Pure and simple. The people don't need the education; the planners do.

And here is the other "good" news, and sad irony:

Hurricane Rita, with an eye 20 miles wide and wind gusts of almost 150 miles per hour, slammed into the Gulf Coast before dawn on Saturday, causing far less damage than officials had feared but raising new concerns as its torrential rain and storm surges caused widespread flooding across much of the region.

By late Saturday, only one death had been attributed to the storm or its remnants; one person was killed in Mississippi when a tornado hit a mobile home, The Associated Press reported. On Friday, 24 residents of a living center for the elderly died when the bus in which they were being evacuated caught fire.

The storm was well down from the Category 5 nightmare everyone expected. Hurricane force winds were supposed to reach Tomball (well north of Houston, though I can't tell you quite how many miles inland), and tropical storm force winds up into Lufkin (a good 2 hours from here). That never happened, as the storm both went further east, and was much smaller and weaker than it was in the hot waters of the Gulf.

But the worst fatalities came from the evacuation. After all the fear and trembling and predictions of certain doom, it was the flight that cost us lives, not the storm. No one to blame here, and no blame attributed by yours truly. But this is what blind panic does, and why it shouldn't be promoted, promulgated, or in any way condoned. But, again, local airwaves were 24/7 with "The Mayor says evacuate!" By Friday, even local news reporters, usually the meekest of the shorn lambs, were grumbling that "evacuation" in Houston used to mean just the "evacuation zones" near the coast and ship channel (including low lying areas in flood plains from bayous that drain to the coast, and so would catch and deliver the storm surge).

We've really got to learn something from this.

On a personal note: thanks for all the good wishes and concerns. I'm glad the storm was no worse than it was, and that in the end, it was nowhere near the house. Frankly, it was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation, staying or fleeing. Had we left, we'd have been caught in the traffic jam that started Wednesday afternoon, but that we didn't learn about until Thursday morning (too busy getting prepared ourselves, Wednesday night). Glad we weren' t in that, but glad we were spared, too.

Now, about all those people who weren't.....prayers, at the very least, seem to be in order. And any other help we can offer. Houston was invonvenienced (although scenes of police patrolling gas stations to keep order may be a vision of our near-future. Foloowing the panic, gas is in short supply just now.). Other cities were hit by a hurricane.

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