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Storm planners reflect on busy hurricane season

By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN

Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - In New Orleans, a dire warning to flee

emptied the city before Hurricane Gustav in early September. In

Houston less than two weeks later, a plea to "hunker down" might

have kept evacuation routes from clogging before Hurricane Ike

struck.

The strategies were different but the results largely the same:

Both cities avoided repeating disastrous evacuations that cost

lives during the deadly 2005 hurricane season.

Many Gulf Coast cities overhauled their disaster plans after

hurricanes Katrina and Rita three years ago. With another

destructive storm season ending Sunday, emergency planners are

reflecting on lessons learned from Gustav and Ike to get ready for

next year.

Retired Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, New Orleans' emergency

preparedness director, said residents deserve much of the credit

for a successful Gustav evacuation.

"The number-one reason we succeeded for Gustav is that our

citizens listened to us," he said.

Following catastrophic failures in evacuating people before and

after Katrina, Louisiana emergency planners developed a model

system using public transportation. It paid off for Gustav, the

first time it was used.

Two days before Gustav made landfall, New Orleans Mayor Ray

Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation for what he called the

"mother of all storms" and warned residents they wouldn't get

emergency services if they stayed.

In a mass migration orchestrated by state officials, an

estimated 2 million residents of coastal Louisiana evacuated before

Gustav crashed ashore 90 miles southwest of the city Sept. 1.

The number of people left behind was minimal compared to

Katrina, when thousands sought shelter at the Louisiana Superdome

and New Orleans convention center and were stranded for days

without food and water.

Gustav was blamed for 46 deaths in Louisiana and caused $1.9

billion in insured losses, numbers dwarfed by Katrina's death toll

of more than 1,600 and $41.1 billion in property damage.

"To our knowledge," Sneed said, "no city has ever evacuated

their entire population, and we feel 97 percent of the city's

population did evacuate."

There were some flaws: Evacuees were taken to shelters without

showers or adequate medical care; a state contractor who was

supposed to provide 700 buses for the evacuation only delivered

311; and victims endured long lines for disaster food stamps.

Thomas Sanchez, a University of Utah professor who studies

evacuation planning, said cities can't plan for disasters in a

vacuum.

"This kind of planning really has to happen on a regional

basis, and that's not what we're finding," Sanchez said. "It's

more than about a city figuring out how to take care of itself."

Texas learned that the hard way. In 2005, before Hurricane Rita

struck, its evacuation plan required Houston to wait until 2

million people on the Gulf Coast had moved past the city, which

sits 50 miles inland. But city leaders ordered Houston to evacuate

early anyway.

Hundreds of thousands jammed the freeways in sweltering late

September, stalled for days. Some 110 people died in accidents or

from exposure or heart attacks. Only a handful died in the storm

itself, which missed the Houston area and hit mostly rural

southeast Texas.

By the time Hurricane Ike's path was apparent - a direct hit on

Galveston Island and Houston - mandatory evacuations were ordered

for coastal counties and a few Houston ZIP codes along waterways

sure to flood. Everyone else was ordered to stay put.

"We are still saying: Please shelter in place, or to use the

Texas expression, hunker down," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the

county's chief administrator, said at the time.

This time, the freeway was jammed leading away from Galveston

immediately after the order, but by late afternoon on Sept. 12, the

day before Ike arrived, many evacuees had made it north of Houston.

"'Hunker down' definitely got the message across," said

Francisco Sanchez, a spokesman for the Harris County emergency

management office.

Still, in part because of the direct hit on Galveston and

Houston, Ike was blamed for at least 72 deaths, including 37 in

Texas, and caused $8.1 billion in insured losses, eclipsing the

$5.6 billion in damage attributed to Rita.

The 2008 hurricane season was one of the most active on record,

with 16 named storms, including eight hurricanes, forming in the

Atlantic. Five of the eight hurricanes were at least Category 3

strength.

--

Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau in New Orleans contributed

to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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