May 22-29 is Hurricane Preparedness Week in Texas and public officials and governmental bodies are urging their constituents to prepare their homes and businesses for the 2011 hurricane season.
One recurring message is that coastal residents should be prepared to evacuate if a major storm threatens. However, a major factor in a decision to evacuate is trusted advice from elected officials who are given emergency powers during such threats.
For the past several years residents of Galveston Island have been ill served by emergency managers at City Hall. I have said so in editorial commentaries throughout the years, and now some others are expressing supporting statements.
“There is no way to sugar coat it, if the storm - Ike - had gone over the other end of Galveston Island we would have had thousands of people dead; because the evacuation was not called early enough,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett in a speech to the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership last week.
I was at Galveston City Hall when city officials finally decided to order an evacuation on September 11, 2008, just two days before the hurricane covered 75 percent of Galveston Island with a toxic, salt water storm surge. The late hour decision came after days of mixed messages from City Hall.
My reports are documented in Hurricane Ike Remembered.
(Mayor Lyda Ann) Thomas stressed that she did not intend to call for an evacuation. (On September 10)
"It is the last thing, the very last thing that I would ever want to do," she said. "We did it once and never want to do it again."
Some members of the news media were taken aback by the mayor's announcement that there would be no mandatory evacuation, but instead the city would provide shelters.
"Mayor Thomas is there a tipping point, where that changes from voluntary to mandatory for the rest of the island, over say, the next 12 to 18 hours, or is there a 'drop dead' time when you can't do that?" asked a Houston reporter.
"Well, I think that a mandatory evacuation at this time is not possible," she responded. "It's just not possible. The window, the time to do that is long past and of course the storm has been so wobbly, right now we are doing what we think is safe."
"You waited too late," I said.
Thomas waited to respond until she answered several questions from other members of the media, then returned to my statement.
"Jim did you have anything?" Thomas asked.
"Well, apparently you waited too late if you were going to make a mandatory evacuation?" I asked.
"You know, we could try that," Thomas responded. "But we don't think we need to do it."
"Generally you say you plan for one category above?" I asked, stating the standard operating procedure of emergency management professionals, to plan for a storm one category above what is expected, in case the storm increases in intensity as it makes landfall - not an unlikely scenario.
"We do," Thomas said, then deferred to City Manager Steve LeBlanc.
"Jim, I'll tell you that just two days ago, on Monday, we all were breathing a big sigh of relief as far as what the conditions were. They had actually gotten much more favorable to us; and we have to go with the information that we have. And I think that's an incorrect statement - that we waited too long. We have gone exactly on the information that we have received. Yes, we do plan for one greater. We try our very best not to pull the mandatory trigger because that obviously causes a lot more effort and expense."
Of course, the city manager and the mayor were required to totally reverse their plans again the following day when Ike continued its course toward landfall in Galveston.
The mixed messages and delay in reaching a decision threatened more than just the residents of Galveston Island.
Residents of the Bolivar Peninsula seek direction from Galveston officials on when they should evacuate. Of course most people did not wait for Galveston and left in plenty of time. Others did not leave early and had to leave their automobiles stranded in high water on Highway 87 while they waded to wherever they found refuge from the storm.
Houston and Harris County officials, who graciously urged their residents to “hunker down” and not contribute to the evacuation traffic - in order to give coastal residents a head start - were forced to second-guess what Galveston officials would eventually decide.
Another example of poor decision making
When Thomas and LeBlanc finally decided to take action, they moved into the San Luis Hotel, which Jack Collie, the chief of emergency management for the Texas Governor’s Office, had warned would not survive a major hurricane.
While it would be easy to excuse the city officials for being overwhelmed by an unexpected emergency and for making poor decisions through lack of experience, it is apparent that they never learned from their mistakes. Collie’s warning was in 2005, when Hurricane Rita threatened. Thomas and LeBlanc ignored his advice then, during Hurricane Rita, and then again three years later during Hurricane Ike.
Thus the city twice put its first responders and other emergency personnel at risk, as well as the representatives of the news media who were thrilled to be housed in a Seawall hotel with a front seat for the hurricane.
That was then
The city now has cleansed its house and has a new management team and appears to be making rational plans for a hurricane emergency. I am confident that decisions on evacuation will be based on public safety, not whether it "causes a lot more effort and expense".
The city council is considering a grant to design a “Safe Room” to house the city’s emergency personnel as well as University of Texas Medical Branch emergency personnel during a hurricane and to serve as headquarters following a storm.
This should not be a controversial proposal. The city council should move forward on this project immediately.